3 Easy Ways To Promote Native Bees On Your Farm Or Homestead

For farmers and homesteaders, it just makes sense to promote the myriad of native bees on your farm.  By encouraging native bees you’re effectively promoting the overall health of the  ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer─since bees are a keystone species and their health and well-being directly impacts plants and animals all the way up the food chain.  A healthy ecosystem is going to result in improved yields; whether you’re farming for vegetables, or farming grass for your cattle herd─the health of your farm’s ecosystem can directly impact your harvest─and so too your profitability.

Note: See this post for more details about the benefits of supporting native pollinators on your farm, and this one for information about who exactly the pollinators are. For the purposes of this article we will be talking largely about native bees, of which there are some 4000 species in North America, and more than 20,000 world-wide.

promoting native bees on your farm or homesteadStep 1 – Recognize existing native bee habitat

Once you’ve committed yourself to the concept of promoting your local native bee populations, there are a number of ways you can improve and create habitat, safe-guard their existence, and encourage their proliferation. First evaluate your farm for existing nesting habitat.  Often we have colonies of native bees present that we are simply overlooking.  Take a walk around your farm to look for these areas.

Sites for ground-nesting bees: Remember that 70% of native bees are ground-nesters.  Look for spots where the soil is of poor quality, bare or sparsely vegetated.  Look for the entrances of ground-nesting native bees. Often they will be marked by a small mound of soil that has been excavated, but it may also be little more than a small hole in the ground.  Usually they will be located in marginal area of the farm, like the banks of drainage ditches or close to buildings or other structures.

By encouraging native bees you can promote the overall health of the ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer. Click to learn more from Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary in Maine!

Sites for wood and cavity-nesting bees: These bees typically do not excavate their own nests–instead they take advantage of the tunnels created by burrowing beetle larvae in dead wood.  They might utilize the center of pithy-stemmed shrubs , while bumble bees frequently nest in old rodent burrows or under tussocks of grass.  Look for dead wood, brush piles, dense shrubby snags, and overgrown native bunch grasses.

Food for Bees

Once you’ve noticed that native bees are indeed present, learn to recognize the plants supporting them.  The best of these will be crawling with many insects─mostly bees─and may be found in area along the roadside, in field boarders, around farm buildings and under utility easements.  These flowers are not a distraction from your crops, as they actually help local bees to reproduce with greater success.

What’s available & when? Try to discern how much forage is available for the native bees.  A study performed by researchers at the University of California, show that when approximately 30% of the land within three-quarters of a mile of the crop-fields is growing natural habitat, native bees can provide all the pollination necessary for a crop of watermelon.  In Canada, Lora Morandin from the University of California discovered that in the absence of honeybees, canola farmers can maximize their income if 30% of the farmland is left in it’s natural habitat─thanks to pollination by wild bees.

Look at the flowers, shrubs, and even the trees growing on and around your farm.  Are they mostly native species?  Do you have a mix of native and naturalized (non-invasive) species, or do you have invasive flowering weeds present on the property? How far away from the farm and your crop-fields are these areas located? The typical foraging distance of native bees is about 500-feet to half a mile from their nest, with the larger species flying farther than the small ones.  Large area of pollinator habitat should be within half a mile of an insect-pollinated crop in order to be of the greatest benefit for crop production.

early spring maple forage for native bees
Many trees–such as the maple pictured–provide early spring food for pollinators.

Take note of the point in the season when they flower─which plants flower in the spring, which in the summer, and which ones flower in the fall?  How many are flowering during each season?  Native bees need forage available throughout the duration of the growing season in order to reproduce and survive.

What are the landscape features of your farm?  How many acres is the average size of your crop field?  What additional landscape features are located within a mile of the crop field?  For example─do you have existing vegetative buffers, to catch drifting insecticides (if you use them), hedgerows, windbreaks, fence-rows of diverse tree and shrub species.  Do you maintain flowering cover crops or a bee-pasture, or do you allow any crops to bolt and flower, which also offers forage for native pollinators.  Do you have a water source for native bees on the farm? Once you’ve found these nesting and foraging sites, leave them alone─preserve them─make the commitment to keep those sites in tact in order to maintain the existing populations of native bees.

Step 2 – Adapt your farming practices

Farmers can help preserve local populations of native bees by making adjustments to their management practices.  Even minor changes can make a big difference.

agriope spider reduces pest pressure in sustainable farming
Beneficial insects like this agriope spider thrive when bee-friendly practices are employed, reducing pest-pressure in the garden or crop-fields.

Are you using insecticides? Ultimately, one of the best things a farmer can do is to avoid the use of pesticides.  Most pesticides kill native bees directly─on contact, while others kill bees indirectly─the pesticide may be carried inadvertently back to the hive in the pollen and nectar, and fed to other bees.  Even some fungicides can kill bees directly–or they may have a sub-lethal effect on the bees–reducing the numbers of offspring the female bee can produce for the next season. When insecticides can’t be avoided─employing an IPM program (Integrated Pest Management) is a good measure for controlling pests and protecting native bees at the same time.  Should the need to apply an insecticide or fungicide arise─spraying at night, when─pollinators are inactive, spraying only outside of bloom periods, and carefully considering the drift path of insecticides─are important methods for protecting existing populations of native bees.

Tillage and weed control: Extensive tillage destroys the nests of shallow ground-nesting bees, and hinders the emergence of bees nesting deeper in the ground.  Farmers should look for nest sites that already exist before tilling. Some native bees are very tightly connected with their host flowers─such as squash bees with cucurbit crops.  The females may dig vertical tunnels in the ground directly next to the plant, and the next generation of bees are typically concentrated 6-12 inches below the surface of the ground.  Plowing destroys these nests, and kills most of the developing bees.  Farmers who discover squash bees living in their fields of melons and squash should try setting their plows at shallower depths─less than 6 inches─or look into no-till practices.

Land management techniques: Are you grazing, burning, mowing, or haying on and around your farm?  Each of these methods have positive and negative impacts on your local native bee populations.  Consider all aspects carefully before moving ahead with maintenance of the landscape.

Grazing – While common practice─can alter the structure, diversity, and growth of the vegetation within a habitat, which can impact the local insect community.  When flowers are scarce, grazing can result in insufficient forage for pollinators.  Grazing also poses the threat of destroying potential and existing nest sites, and can result in the direct trampling of adult bees.

Burning – Fire management of the landscape can have a highly variable effect on insect communities.  When used appropriately, fire can restore and maintain habitat for pollinators; but if used too frequently it can result in a dramatic decrease of invertebrate populations.

bee-friendly rotational field mowing
A mowing rotation can help boost pollinator populations.

Mowing – Like grazing, mowing can suppress the growth of woody vegetation─thus maintaining vegetative pastures where pollinators thrive.  However─it can also negatively impact insects through direct mortality─especially of the egg and larval stages when nests are mowed under, because those bees cannot escape.

Mowing also creates a uniform field─destroying features like the grass tussocks that bumble bees prefer to nest under.  What’s more─mowing very abruptly removes almost all flowers. The landscape can still be managed though─to maintain those open areas─if farmers conduct mowing and burning when plants and pollinators are dormant (in the late fall and throughout the winter months─depending on where you are located).  Limit the disturbance to one-third or one-fourth of the landscape, to ensure the survival of some of the native bee populations, so that they may recolonize the managed area.  And practice rotational grazing─using a carefully planned to suit the conditions of the site.

Practice bee-friendly farm management: There are a number of ways farmers can adjust their management practices to encourage pollinator populations on and around their farms.  Even the most minor changes can make the world of difference to your native bees.

  • Diversity of crops – Growing a wide variety of crops can support native bees by extending the bloom period.
  • Staggered plantings – If you specialize in a single crop, consider succession plantings to encourage pollinator populations.  For example─growing early and late-flowering blueberries or apples allows more foraging time by the native bees─increasing their reproductive success.
  • mustard gone to flower
    Mustard that has gone to flower in the garden.

    Allow some crops to bolt – Leaving a portion of your crop in the ground, and allowing them to mature and flower before you plow them under is a simple delay in management that provides an additional source of food for your bees.

  • Strategic crop rotation – When rotating crops, moving it to a new field 500-1000 feet away allows the offspring of the bees that are currently foraging on that crops flowers to find the new site the following year.
  • Non-chemical alternatives to pesticides – Maintain a healthy and diverse landscape to deter pests and diseases.  Practice biological controls, such as hand-picking or crushing larger insects, or spraying with soapy water.  Employ good sanitation practices: remove infected leaves and the previous year’s crop from the area to further limit the spread of disease.  For larger farms where hand-picking is not practical, utilizing IPM methods can be a good compromise.
  • Tolerate weeds – While weed management is important for successful crop production–some weeds are important food sources for bees and other beneficial insects.  Tolerating the presence of weeds on the farm can go a long way toward providing additional food for crop-pollinating insects. Maybe you have areas weeds can be allowed to grow, or select weeds you can coexist with?

Step 3 – Provide additional habitat

If you’re looking to actively increase the populations of resident bees on your farm─-you can increase the available foraging habitat to include a range of plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall─providing an abundant supply of pollen and nectar all season long.

buckwheat cover crop
A cover crop improves soil conditions and reduces weed pressure, all while feeding important beneficial insects.

Cover crops & bee-pastures: Growing appropriate cover crops and letting them bloom, or devoting some areas to specialized bee-pastures are 2 easy ways to include your native bees. Bee-pastures are fields growing plants that offer superior food for bees.  They offer an abundant bloom throughout the nesting period and especially during the larval stages, and bee-emergence.  Usually these pasture consist of high-density wildflower meadows with a diversity of plant species, including many native plant varieties, but possibly some non-native species which are not aggressive or invasive.

Understory plantings: Try using cover crops as understory plantings in orchards, where the flowers bloom all at once, and then are gone, leaving little else for the rest of the year, or use clover in the pathways of your gardens and crop fields.

Smaller plantings throughout the farm: Placing smaller plantings of wildflowers every 500-feet throughout the farm helps native bees move deeper into the farm.  These potential nesting sites mean the bees won’t have to go far from where they are foraging on a crop to find new food sources coming into bloom once your crop has flowered.

Start today!

Promoting the health of your farm’s ecosystem by focusing conservation efforts on native bees is a great way to increase the viability of your farm.  There are programs available for farmers interested in pollinator conservation–contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service to find out more about the resources they’re offering farmers to do just that.  And keep in mind that some of the best measures you can take actually reduce your expenses–or cost nothing whatsoever–so what are you waiting for? Start today!

What do you think? Is it worth it to go the extra mile to promote the health of your farm’s ecosystem? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!

New pollinator conservation planning services!

bee-habitat-planning

Over the last decade my personal mission in life has slowly evolved into one that is two-fold. One the one hand I’m dedicated to sustainability and all that word encompasses: sustainable energies and industries, sustainable living, sustainable communities─and especially sustainable food systems. On the other hand, and perhaps just a little overzealously─is the part of me which is committed to pollinator conservation.

pollinator-conservation-planningIt’s a commitment to wildlife and nature in general, that drives me. That’s the basis of my principles and the force behind my stubborn pursuit of a sustainable life. I have chosen to devote my life to nature, through stewardship as a farmer and wildlife advocate. By focusing my efforts on a keystone species like pollinators I can do good that benefits the entire ecosystem. And so my life’s other mission is to help bees and other beneficial insects.

That’s right. BUGS.

I like to laugh at myself now, because when I was 14 years old I never would have imagined I’d grow up to be the person I am today.

And yet I’m really excited about this new project. I want to work with home-owners, property managers, and farmers who want to create more bee-friendly habitats wherever they are located.

Enter the Pollinator and Beneficial Insect Conservation Plan.

What is it?

These are site-specific blueprints that identify habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects in your backyard, on your farm, on existing conservation land or other property, and offers recommendations to increase their abundance. I want to come to your property to assess existing habitat and then design a plan tailored to meet your particular goals.

What are the benefits?

bee-habitat-planningBy implementing my recommendations you can increase the available forage and nesting habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Creating habitat for bees creates habitat for other wildlife, and by protecting the flora and fauna in your area you can even help combat climate change.

Farmers and gardeners will see improvement in the pollination of their crops, which results in increased yields. Promoting the abundance of beneficial insects also contributes to natural pest suppression and so reduces the need for pesticide applications.

To learn more about the benefits of a Pollinator & Beneficial Insect Conservation Plan check out our new consulting page which lists all the details regarding this service.

Types of Projects

  • Private land owners: home-owners and farms
  • Residential and resort communities
  • Community centers and faith-based organizations
  • Municipalities
  • Historic farms and gardens
  • Schools, camps, and other educational programs
  • Children’s hospitals, senior centers and other health-based institutions
  • Restaurants, culinary centers and spas

I’m ready!

No matter how large or small the plot you have to work with, there’s something we can all do to help bees, pollinators, and other beneficial insects. I’m ready to help you create your bee-friendly space.

Check out the consultations page for all of the details related to this new service from Runamuk, and if you’re interested drop me a line. If you know anyone who might be interested, please share our contact info with them and help me to help bees!

Talking pollinators at the Common Ground Fair

At 2pm on Saturday, September 24th I will be in Unity at MOFGA’s annual Common Ground Fair to give a talk Ive dubbed “Pollinator Conservation through Agriculture”. *Insert excited squeal here.*

pollinator conservation at common ground fairThere’s a decided interest from the public in pollinators, I’m excited to be able to say. You see it in the news, in the increasing numbers of backyard-beekeepers, at your local garden center, and we see it in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The representatives who answer the phone there are getting more calls every year from gardeners and farmers wanting to grow plants for pollinators. People want to help, they want to raise pollinator-friendly plants that offer food and habitat for bees, and they want to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning to bees.

I’m sure the fact that I’m a bee-nut was not the main reason Johnny’s hired me, lol. That was just an added bonus─or a peculiarity they decided was worth tolerating. Lol, I think I’ve grown on them though, they asked me to represent the company by giving a presentation at the Common Ground Fair. Can you believe it?!

Actually I think when Amy LeClaire first mentioned it to me I was horrified and flabbergasted: “But what will I talk about!?” This is a different scale of audience then the Somerset County 4H and the Madison or East Madison Grange. It’s not the Solon Summer Rec Program or the kindergarten class at the Carrabec Community School in North Anson. We’re talking about the Common Ground Fair─the fair of fairs, a revelry for sustainable living, a festival to pay homage to Maine’s agricultural roots.

Amy looked at me patiently, spreading her hands out before her as if the answer should be obvious and said, “Bees?”

Of course! Duh! So I dubiously said yes, I’d do it, and set about revamping one of my favorite presentations about pollinator conservation.

pollinator conservation through agriculture
Monarch butterflies are becoming more rare, but we had one at Runamuk this season.

This presentation first covers why bees and pollinators are in peril, and then discusses specific actions gardeners and farmers can take to benefit and even increase their local populations of pollinators. All of the information I present is garnered from credible sources such as the Xerces Society, the Pollinator Partnership, the NRCS, and more. I’ll throw in some personal anecdotes of my beekeeping misadventures along the way just to keep things interesting. Along with my presentation I’ll have lots of handouts available, as well as book and website recommendations for further learning.

It’s been 7 years since my first hive─when I was suddenly overcome by this fascination with pollinators. Come spend an hour with me, let me share with you my love for bees, and learn what you can do to support local pollinators in your backyard, in the garden or on the farm.

Mark your calendars or fair guides:

Pollinator Conservation Through Agriculture
Saturday, September 24th – 2pm at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair in Unity, ME
Railcar Speakers’ Tent

Teaching kids to tolerate insects

I was invited to speak with the children participating in the Solon Summer-Rec program yesterday, so I pulled a couple of frames of bees and their Queen from a hive and put them into the observation hive and my younger son and I went off to talk about bees. Teaching folks about the importance of pollinators is one of the things that drives me, and groups of children are especially fun to bring the observation hive into.

This was the last day of their program and there hadn’t been any swimming lessons so the twenty or so K-6th graders were a bit rowdy by the time I arrived at noon. Getting them to settle down and listen to any length of lecturing was something akin to trying to wrangle a group of stray cats.

Enter my 9 year old son (for security reasons I refer to him as “Summer” here on the blog) whom I’d brought along with me promising he could teach the group some of the things he’d learned about bees since his crazy mamma had begun her bee-project. He picked the perfect topic: “Bee stings.”

One of the largest reasons folks of all ages are wary or afraid of bees is related to the fear of being stung. So Summer put on the child-sized gloves and veil to demonstrate for the group of children the kind of gear that beekeepers wear to protect themselves, and he talked about why bees sting─the fact that it’s a defense mechanism and that the bee’s “guts” come out with the stinger when they do it, so the bee dies. Summer explained that the best way to avoid getting stung when you’re outside playing and see a bee is to simply “ignore it”, leave it alone. But if you do get stung─he told the kids they could make a baking soda paste, or find plantain growing nearby and chew that up to put on the sting-site. He went on to explain that using plantain is much like what the orangutans do (Summer has a passion for orangutan conservation─dunno where he gets that from, lol) when they chew up this particular type of berry to put on their wounds. And he made sure that the children knew that all of the bees they see out working flowers are girl-bees, because the males are only there to mate with the Queen and in the fall they’re kicked from the hive and die.

The chaotic group of children were very attentive while Summer spoke and when he was finished I tried to pick it up and get some other points across. We talked about who the pollinators are, what pollination is and why it’s important, and I briefly touched on some of the issues plaguing bees.

By that point the kids were losing interest so we just proceeded to answer questions about the bees inside the observation hive; I was able to point out the Queen for them, who was busily laying eggs as she should be and told them a bit about her job and role in the hive. One little boy asked about how long it took the bees to hatch and so I was able to explain a bit about the honeybee life-cycle and pointed out the larvae curled up in some of the cells. Finally we went through my toolbox before they dispersed across the lawn of the library there in Solon.

Thank you card

I really enjoy these kinds of educational outreach─teaching the communities I serve about pollinators and the crucial role they play in our world. The kids may have been a little chaotic, but they were sweet and respectful and I went home with a thank you card they’d made for me. It gives me hope that people might learn to respect and tolerate─if not appreciate─the creatures we share the Earth with, for every critter has a role, no matter how big or small, we all have a part to play in the interconnected web of life. thank you cardThis is what inspires me to keep doing what I do.

Plants for pollinators

By now it’s fairly common knowledge that bees and pollinators are in trouble. The media has spread the word of Colony Collapse Disorder and the vanishing bees far and wide; it’s been in the news, in magazines, all over social media, there are several movies, and there are spokespeople who give talks to educate the population. We know now that CCD is not some mysterious disease that suddenly wipes out hives, but a combination of ailments creating a perfect storm weakening hives to the point of collapse.

Conservation efforts are underway─the USDA has granted several million dollars to Universities for research of the issues, non-profit organizations work tirelessly to educate and promote bee-friendly attitudes, and a number of pollinator programs have been created by the NRCS to improve habitat. In some regards the movement is gaining traction, but a love of insects is a hard sell; people have an innate fear of stinging insects especially, and saving the honeybee and its fellow pollinators still has a long way to go.

I’ve written quite a lot about pollinators; to read more about the issues plaguing them and what you can do to help check out my articles and posts by clicking here.

plants for pollinatorsOne thing in particular we can do to promote healthy populations of local pollinators is to grow plants for pollinators. Bees and other pollinating insects collect the nectar and pollen of flowers to feed themselves; for some this is their only food source. Some insects like butterflies, moths and wasps drink the nectar, while others like honeybees turn the nectar into honey and eat the sticky sweet substance in addition to the protein-rich pollen.

If you’re thinking about adding more plants for pollinators to your yard or garden, I recommend first taking stock of what’s already available in and around your yard. Consider first all of the native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers growing around you throughout the season. Pollinators need both nectar and pollen, and they need it all season long, but especially so in the early spring. Check out this list of native plants that offer good food sources for pollinators; it’s not all inclusive, and you may have differing species if you’re not from the northeast like me, but this will give you an idea of some of the types of plants to look for.

Native trees & shrubs:

  • Maple
  • Willow
  • Alders
  • Basswood
  • Dogwood
  • Amalanchier
  • Apples/crabapples
  • Locust

Native wildflowers:

  • Dandelions
  • Clover
  • Wild raspberries/blackberries
  • Yarrow
  • Lupines
  • Goldenrod
  • Asters
  • Japanese knotweed

Once you know what you have you can look at the availability of existing pollinator forage to determine if there are any gaps or low-availability of nectar and pollen throughout the season. I recommend beginning by filling in those gaps first, and then moving on to adding to that existing base. See the list below for some favorite flowers and herbs of pollinators.

Great perennials:

  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea
  • Bergamot
  • Yarrow
  • Lupine
  • Yarrow
  • Salvia
  • Mint-family herbs: lemonbalm, spearmint, hyssop, catnip, etc.
  • Butterfly weed
  • Great blue lobeila

Favorite annuals:

  • Sunflowers
  • Borage
  • Cosmos
  • Tithonia
  • Zinnias
  • Herbs
  • Asters
  • Calendula
  • Cornflower
  • Ageratum
  • Heliotropium

By no means is this an all-inclusive list. Plant recommendations will vary depending upon your region and I urge anyone considering adding pollinator plants to their garden or yard to first do their homework and research which perennials are native to their location, which offer the best sources of nectar and/or pollen for pollinators, and which ones will be best suited to their specific growing conditions. See the list of recommended resources at the bottom of this article for further reading.

When choosing plants for pollinators be sure you’re selecting varieties that have not been bred to be horticultural flowers that contain no pollen. Many flower-growers want pollenless varieties, and in a pollinator garden this defeats the purpose. Also avoid hybrid flowers with “double blossoms”; these are flowers that have been bred with extra petals for visual appeal, which typically block access to the flowers’ nectaries, and so is of little use to pollinators.

With some careful selection you can establish a beneficial and beautiful resource to encourage the pollinator populations around your home. You’ll know you’re doing your part to save these keystone species, and you’ll inspire others to follow suit. #beesrock!

Recommended Resources

Pollinator-Friendly Plant Lists – detaled resources divided into regions, provided by the Xerces Society.
Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides – free pdf downloads of planting guides according to region; offered by the Pollinator Partnership.
Pollinator Friendly Plants to Choose – a free resource put out by the Center for Food Safety.
Pollinators; What you can do to help – Extensive list of resources and information here from the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Nectar & Pollen Plants for Native Wild Pollinators – A downloadable pdf-ebook from beefriend.org.
Pollinator Conservation – Resources and lists from Wildflower.org.
Gardening for Beginners; Your First Garden and More – A massive, 5,000+ word guide on gardening and landscaping from Groom & Style magazine. Based on the advice of 100 professional gardeners, and including information on everything from starting your first greenhouse to growing plants and herbs in pots, and everything in between!

Why support native bees on your farm?

farming for native bees

why support native bees on your farm

Until recently, native and feral bee populations met all of a farmers’ pollination needs.  Farms were smaller, and closer to natural areas where native bee populations could easily recolonize a farm should an insecticide application kill resident bees. But with the advent of the industrial farm, habitat for pollinators has been drastically reduced─today, many of our agricultural landscapes are vast and lack sufficient habitat to support native pollinators or wildlife of any kind.

Despite the reduction of their habitat, native bees still play an important role in crop pollination across North America.  Their pollination services are estimated to be worth $3 billion annually.

Meet the native bees

farming for native bees
This sweat bee species is metallic green with a black and white striped abdomen. Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Native bees come in a wide range of sizes and colors─tiny sweat bees can be less than a quarter inch in length, while bumble and carpenter bees may be larger than an inch long.  Some may resemble honeybees quite a lot─with hairy stripes of yellow, or white and black. They may be dark brown, black─even metallic green and blue with stripes of red, white, orange, yellow, and mother-of-pearl.

Some may look a lot like flying ants or flies.

 

ground-nesting native bees on farms
Ground-nesting bumble bee. Photo courtesy Flikr.com

Most are solitary, with each female creating and provisioning her own individual nest without the help of her sister worker bees. The majority of these native species are docile and unlikely to ever sting you.

Approximately 70% of native bees are ground-nesters, with a solitary female excavating her own nest tunnel, and from the one tunnel she’ll dig a series of brood cells─placing a mixture of pollen and nectar in each cell before laying an egg in it.

Other native bees nest in the narrow tunnels created by beetle larvae in dead wood─or they may use the center of pithy twigs. In North America, only about 40 species are actually “social” insects─that is─they live together in communities, with different working castes and the ability to communicate amongst themselves.  Bumblebees, for example, nest in small cavities like abandoned rodent burrows, or grassy tussocks, and depending on the species─colonies may have a couple hundred worker bees by the middle of summer.

Benefits of native bees

Native bees are much more efficient pollinators than honeybees.  In fact─it only requires about 250 female blue orchard bees to effectively pollinate an acre of apples─a task that would call for 1-2 honeybee colonies, each containing tens of thousands of workers.

native bees on farms
Native bee. Photo courtesy Flickr.com

Another benefit of native bees is that they are active in colder and wetter weather conditions than honey bees, and have more diverse foraging habits than honeybees.  Unlike the blue orchard bees that forage for both pollen and nectar, in many orchard crops nectar foraging honeybees never contact the flower’s anthers─thus not actually pollinating the flower.  And the shape of alfalfa flowers actually discourages honeybees from pollinating them, yet the alkali bee can easily collect pollen and nectar from them.

Having a high population of native bees on and around the farm can be a good insurance policy, should honeybees be in short supply to provide pollination for your crop.  What’s more–studies have indicated that rather than creating a situation of short food supply─when honeybees and native bees are both present in an area, there comes a sort of friendly competition, whereas one spurs the other on to increase their foraging─thus increasing pollination in the area.

Growing plants for native pollinators has other benefits too─many plants that are beneficial to bees are also beneficial to the soil, and can reduce soil erosion.  Planting bee-friendly flowering plants results in increased crop production resulting from more efficient pollination, which can provide additional revenue to the farm.

Native bees benefit crops!

  • More than 100 species of native bees have been observed visiting the Wisconsin cranberry bogs.
  • In California, 60+ species of native bees have been seen visiting watermelon, sunflower, and tomato crops.
  • Native bees have nearly tripled production of cherry tomatoes in California.
  • In fields of sunflowers, native bees improved the pollination efficiency of honeybees, causing them to move between male and female flowers more often.  Only fields abundant in both native bees and honeybees had 100% seed set.
  • In the blueberry barrens of Maine and Massachusetts, more than 80 species of native bee have been recorded pollinating the crops there.
  • 100 species and more were documented pollinating the apple orchards in New York and Pennsylvania.

Consider the benefits and act today!

supporting native bees on farmsMany of the management techniques that farmers can use to encourage native bee populations on and around their farm cost little to nothing.  If you should decide that you want to invest in your native pollinators, there are programs available through the Natural Resource Conservation Service to assist farmers in implementing a pollinator program.  Stay tuned for the next post in this series to learn more about those methods and how you can better support native bees and pollinators on your farm.

Who are the native pollinators?

who pollinates

who are the pollinatorsBecause I love bees and because the act of pollination fascinates me so–it saddens me to think that all too often this crucial event and the animals that make it happen–are overlooked.  It really is amazing to think about how the actions of one animal can affect an entire ecosystem.

While honeybees are the most commonly used pollinator in domestic agriculture, they are far from the only pollinators.  Pollinators can be insects, birds, bats, lizards, and mammals.

Insect pollinators

who are the pollinators
Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Bees – When you talk about bees, most people think of the honeybee–yet the honeybee is not native to North America, having been brought here by European settlers.  We have some 4000 different species who are native to the continent–including bumble bees, orchard bees, mining bees, alkali bees and sweat bees–just to name a few.

Wasps – I know, I know–no one seems to like wasps.  They have a reputation for being aggressive–yet they are incredibly beneficial creatures.  The adults drink nectar, and so help with pollination–yet their larvae require a protein source–so wasps prey upon caterpillars and other insects in your gardens in order to feed their babies.

Flies – Many insects, flies included, utilize the free meal that flowers offer in the form of nectar and pollen, and as they are foraging for their food–they are inadvertently pollinating flowers–even a few important human food crops, including strawberries, onions, and carrots.

Mosquitoes – Yes–even the pesky mosquito has some value in the ecosystem (you know–aside from being great food for bats, which we all love!).  While the female requires the protein she gathers from the blood of animals, the male drinks the nectar of flowers to sustain himself.

butterfly pollinators
Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Butterflies & moths – Perhaps the most beloved of pollinators–while they are not the most important ones, they are perhaps the most conspicuous–flitting and floating across a garden or field.

Beetles – These are the most prolific of pollinators–with more than 340,000 identified species of beetles worldwide, and nearly 30,000 species in North America alone.  Along with flies, beetles were some of the very first pollinators 150 million years ago.

Ants – Ants can often be found busily collecting pollen from flowers–and peonies are actually dependent upon ants for their reproduction!

Birds, bats, & lizards–oh my!

Birds – Who doesn’t love hummingbirds?  Practically everyone knows of these colorful birds who zip from one blossom to the next, but honeycreepers in Hawaii, honeyeaters in Austrailia, brush-tongued parrots of New Guinea, and sunbirds in the Old World tropics–as serve as pollen vectors for plants.

pollination by bats
Photo courtesy: Flickr.com.

Bats – One of my other favorite pollinators–which are important in desert and tropical climates.  The lesser-long nosed bat, and the Mexican long-tongued bat both travel thousands of miles into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and are crucial for the pollination of the magnificent saguaro cactus.  It is a personal dream of mine to go to the Saguaro National Park some day to see this event in action–one of natures’ most beautiful events!

Lizards – Some lizard species, include a variety of gecko,and some skinks–are specialized pollinators.

Mammals as pollinators

There are a number of mammals who provide pollination to particular plants–including the black and white ruffed lemurs, and honey possums.  But any creature walking through a meadow can inadvertently pick up pollen grains on its fur and transfer it to another flower, thereby pollinating the plant.  Even humans.

What’s your favorite pollinator?

While this is not by any means a comprehensive list–it gives you some idea of the broad ranging scope that we are talking about when we refer to pollinators.  They are not all so loveable as the colorful hummingbird, the graceful butterfly, or the fuzzy bumble bee–but they all play a crucial role in the Earth’s integrated ecosystems.  My favorites–of course are the bees–all 20,000 species of them–with bats coming in at a close second-place.  How about you?  What’s your favorite pollinator???

What is the driving force behind the Runamuk farm?

conservation driving runamuk
nature conservation at runamuk
Every creature, plant, and force on Earth has a part to play in the global ecosystem.

“What a hideous plant!  Isn’t it terrific!?”

“Oh my gawd–check out this spider!  Look at all those long legs!”

These are not exclamations of repulsion, but terms of endearment uttered by myself and our family.  We truly love nature.  To us the Earth is a marvel; there is beauty in even the ugliest of plants, the homeliest of animals–even rocks are special because they are connected to the Earth.

For our family, Runamuk is not just a farm.  Keith and I do not want merely to be farmers–we want to be conservationists.  We believe that all of the interconnected systems (weather, pollination, food chains, etc.) that make up the functioning global ecosystem are crucial, and we believe it should all be protected and preserved for future generations.

Why bother with environmental conservation?

Since the start of the industrial revolution, Earths’ landscapes have been intensely affected by human development.  Native grasslands, forests and wetlands in many of the world’s more highly populated areas have all but been eliminated.  Urban development and natural resource exploration is increasing dramatically and continues to significantly impact Earth’s remaining natural landscapes.  These changes have resulted in stresses to numerous species of native plant and animal life, reducing biodiversity, as well as soil, water, and air.

We believe that a healthy ecosystem means a more productive and more profitable farm.  We know that managing a productive farm can be compatible with the needs of wildlife–that promoting soil health will promote lush plant growth, which will provide us with larger, more bountiful crops, while at the same time sequestering carbon and improving the atmosphere.  Conserving wild places on our property allows for the preservation of existing wildlife, and creating new habitat allows that wildlife to flourish and thrive.

We feel it is our moral duty to do be good stewards of this planet, and if we can only affect change on this parcel of property that we’ve been granted, than we will do just that.

Why pollinators?

But why insects?  And why bees?  They sting! 

Native pollinators are facing threats from many sources, including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, intensive farming and ranching practices, and urban development.

Pollinators are a keystone species–much of life on Earth can be linked to the simple act of pollination in one way or another.  Remember the food chains from elementary school?  The insects pollinate the flowers, the birds eat the insects, the fox eats the bird, and the coyote eats the fox.

conservation driving runamukDon’t like coyotes?  How about owls?  The bees pollinate the flowers, flowers turn into fruits (lets say berries, for this example), mice eat the berries, and the owl eats the mouse.

There are an infinite number of scenarios linking wildlife to pollination–one that even includes mankind.

What would we do without flowering plants?  Sure, we’d still have food–wind pollinated crops like oats, corn, and rice.  But the diversity of food–the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that give our bodies the vitamins and minerals that we need–would not be available to us, or to any other creature who depends upon them for survival.

Plants and pollinators have evolved together over the last 130 million years.  It’s an intimate relationship, and when you watch an insect alight upon a flower, delve deeply into it’s petals to sip the rewarding nectar that the plant is offering, and emerge dusted in pollen granules, you’re watching an ancient partnership being carried out.  Without the animal pollinators, flowering plants could not exist.  And without the food that flowering plants provide these animals, many of them could not survive either.  Whether we like them or not, insects are an integral part of life on Earth.

At Runamuk, we know that providing and protecting habitat for pollinators is a benefit to the entire ecosystem.

How will you accomplish pollinator conservation at Runamuk?

We have two-fold approach to establishing pollinator conservation here at the Runamuk Farm and Apiary.  The first part involves providing the basic pollinator habitat components that native pollinators need to thrive.  The second revolves around public education and outreach, teaching others why these insects are so important and how others can help pollinators in their own backyards.

Providing pollinator habitat

Our long term plan for using livestock to reclaim the old pastures is entirely geared toward providing pollinator habitat here at the Runamuk farm, with the added benefit of raising food for our family and generating an income all at the same time.  Once we’ve opened the land up once more, we will plant an assortment of different pastures and wildflower meadows.

Forage crops:  Grassy pastures were once common place in the rural agricultural setting, but have in recent years become less and less common as farming has been abandoned.  Pastures offer native bees a veritable foraging buffet of nectar and pollen sources.  What’s more, many forage crops depend on, or are improved by pollination for seed formation–alfalfa, clovers, and vetch for example, all benefit from pollination.

In addition to providing food for native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, these forage crops will also provide us with our own livestock feed, reducing our need for off-farm inputs and thus increasing our self-sufficiency and improving the sustainability of the Runamuk farm.

Wildflower meadows:  Pollinators need a succession of blooms offering them food throughout the entire foraging season, from early spring, through the fall.  By planting a selection of native wildflowers, grasses, and flowering shrubs and trees, we can enhance the habitat we’re offering pollinators on the farm.

Taking this concept a step further, we can plant one meadow with plants geared toward native bees, while another can be geared specifically toward butterflies.  We plan to install a series of meadows, all interconnected by a network of trails.

conservation driving runamuk
“Bee Hotel” Just one example of a native bee nesting site. Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Nesting sites:  With more than 270 native species of bees in Maine, we need to offer a variety of nesting sites to optimize the diversity of pollinators here on the farm.  We plan to utilize as many natural nest sites as possible–such as leaving select dead trees, which beetles will drill into, and later abandon, leaving empty holes that bees use to lay their eggs in.  But we also plan to establish a number of native bee “hotels” and nest boxes.

We’ll also set up nesting boxes for butterflies, bats, and a variety of birds, with the aim of creating a diverse and healthy ecosystem.

Water sources:  Every living creature on the planet needs water, and as part of our permaculture design, water conservation will be worked into our landscape designs.  Our property is already water-rich, even despite the fact that we have neither stream or lake, but by creating swales and ponds, we can collect the water and make better use of it.

Conservation and protection:  Through careful observation and assessment of our property, we can determine which areas on the farm already promote habitat for pollinators.  Those areas we can leave, conserving the population that exists there, and protecting them for future generations of native bees and butterflies.

We can also keep the existing pollinator populations in mind when we decide to manage any area–performing landscaping or site maintenance when it poses the least harm to the insects, such as late in the fall once the brood-rearing and foraging season is over.

Offering education and outreach

The second half of our plan to promote pollinator conservation is involves establishing Runamuk as an education center, and working with the public to teach folks more about bees and pollinators.

The Runamuk Education Center:  Our network of walking and hiking trails will make Runamuk a tourist destination.  Guided or self-guided tours through our various wildflower meadows and forests, skirting grassy pastures and serene ponds, and exploring the barns, offers the public the opportunity to connect with nature, learn more about pollinators, and see what sustainable farming at Runamuk is all about.

With a shady picnic area, and a cordwood constructed building to house our education center, school children can come to the farm on field trips, we can host a variety of workshops related to pollinator conservation or sustainable living, and offer numerous events to promote agritourism on the farm.

Promoting pollinator conservation through public outreach:  Runamuk is already becoming known as a local authority for pollinator conservation.  In the last 4 years I’ve established and become president of the Somerset Beekeepers, been invited to speak at a number of local venues about bees, beekeeping, and pollinator conservation, written for the state beekeeping journal, the county master gardener journal, and created an online presence as a pollinator advocate.  As we continue to grow our farm and work toward our goal of creating an education center, I can only hope that our influence continues to grow with it.

Not just a farm

Because we’ve chosen to incorporate conservation with agriculture, Runamuk is more than your ordinary farm.  Our passion for wildlife and our desire to live sustainably on our land is evident in every aspect of our farm plans, and by focusing our conservation efforts on native pollinators as a keystone species we’re able to do the greatest good.

After 4 years of micro-farming, Runamuk is set to move forward with it’s expansion, keeping wildlife and pollinator conservation at the heart of our mission because we know it is our duty to be good stewards upon this Earth.

 

Sustainable beekeeping at the state beekeepers’ conference

deborah delaney ude scientist at msba

I love the assortment of people who are drawn to beekeeping.  Young and old, eccentric and conservative, financially solvent–and bootstrappers like me–those who make do with less.  People from all over the state come together for the annual Maine State Beekeepers’ conference to join together in the spirit of learning; to bask in the feeling of community generated by a diverse group of people with a single common interest.

The topic this year was “Sustainable Beekeeping”–and the speakers the MSBA had lined up for us were Deborah Delaney, assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware; and Kirk Webster, owner and operater at Champlain Valley Bees & Queens in Middlebury, Vermont, who has been keeping bees since 1986, and whose apiary has been treatment free since 2002.  Each of these speakers would be presenting two separate talks.  Since sustainable beekeeping is something that is very important to me, I was keenly interested to hear what these two educated and experienced beekeepers had to say on the matter.  What was their interpretation of sustainable beekeeping?  How did they go about it?  And would they have any insights, tools, or methods that I might be able to utilize in Runamuk’s continued transition to natural beekeeping?

New friends and Old

I arrived almost an hour early in order to be assured a seat at a table near the front of the room, and while the Italian Heritage Center was already bustling with activity, the tables were still largely vacant, and I chose to join a lovely couple from Andover who were sitting just off to the left of the podium and projector screen.  We were joined by another couple who–as it turns out–have a camp on Embden Pond, which is just a short drive from Anson.  This fellow keeps some hives over in Norridgewock and was the winner of the honey tasting last year.  😉

We were eventually joined by the Cronkhite gentlemen, Roy Senior and Junior, and I was glad for it.  Roy Cronkhite Jr is a second generation beekeeper and president of the Kennebec Beekeepers, so our counties and organizations are neighbors, and we have shared open-hive sessions in the past in an effort to instill a greater sense of community among the beekeepers in this part of the state.  And also just to share the learning and the fun that we have beekeeping.  The senior Mr. Cronkhite has more than 40-years beekeeping experience and is an inspiration to new beekeepers like myself.

Our MSBA group president Carol Cottril called us together to welcome us all and the day got underway.  Deborah Delaney took the floor first with her talk entitled “Bee-Having to Bee-Keeping; Moving Toward a Sustainable Bee Industry”.

What’s happening to our bees?

deborah delaney ude scientist at msba
Deborah was animated and enthusiastic.

Deborah was energetic and enthusiastic–a “spunky speaker”–she talked about the problems the bee-industry is facing, the media attention that “Colony Collapse Disorder” has generated since 2007 and all of the doom and gloom reports–but wonders “is it helping?”  She talked about some of the movies CCD has spurred and the numerous cartoons circulating facebook–most of which I myself have seen come through my newsfeed.

But “what’s the big deal?” she asked.  Well of course it’s a big deal because honeybees and other pollinators (she feels it’s important to lump all pollinators together–and I absolutely adore her for that!) provide a service that results in the creation of the food we eat.  It is the basis for the wealth of biodiversity that we know on our planet.  A value estimated at $215 billion-dollars globally.

Pollinator declines first hit mainstream media in 2006-2007 beekeepers were experiencing an annual decline of about 30%; surveys from the winter of 2012-2013 record colony failures at 40-50%.

When the term CCD was first coined back in 2007, it was a big mystery–no one knew what was happening to the bees.  Now, almost 7 years later, we can say with certainty that the problems are:

  1. Pests & Pathogens
  2. Intensified land-use and the use of pesticides.
  3. Phenological shifts due to climate change.
  4. Stress
  5. Invasive species

So how did that happen?  How did we get here?

A little history

beekeeping history
Humanity first hunted beehives to harvest honey, beekeeping evolved later.

Deborah talked about the history of beekeeping–which is really interesting.  Humanity’s relationship with bees began with honey hunting.  Once upon a time there were even sacred rituals related to harvesting.  Honey and beeswax have been prized throughout history.

During the early European settlement of America in the 1600s, hives of honeybees were imported to the new world by ship, and between the 1600s and the 1800s–every farm had bees, despite the fact that the relationship between pollinators and the natural world was not even understood yet.  It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that science finally made the connection.

Unfortunately those early settlers with their founding population of honeybees, only brought to America one-third of about 24 varieties of honeybees, which we’ve since built an entire industry upon–creating a bottleneck of honeybee genetic diversity here in the United States.

The importance of good genetics

Deborah has been studying honeybees in order to identify their genetics so that we might better understand how to manage and maintain our beehives.  She’s studied the effect of genetic variation in hives, the morphological characteristics of various bees, maternal ancestry of American honeybees, the genetics of stock used for large-scale Queen-breeding–and the genetics of feral bee populations too.

Since genetic diversity is necessary for the survival and adaptation of a species to new and adverse environmental conditions, this is crucial information for the beekeeping industry to have in order to improve our honeybee stock.

According to Deborah, 3 major bottleneck events led to the reduction of genetic diversity in our modern American honeybee populations.  The first occurred when early settlers only brought 8 subspecies of the 24 varieties of honeybees available, and then only 3 of those subspecies found accommodation among beekeepers.

The second bottleneck that occurred, was the devestating reduction of both feral and commercial honeybee populations caused by the Varroa mite.

And the third bottleneck event is the current Queen-breeding practices used by breeders.  Deborah says:

“The honeybee breeding industry uses a small number of Queen mothers (less than 600) to produce nearly 1 million replacement Queens for beekeepers in the United States.”

tree nesting bees
Feral bees often find cavities in trees to make their nests in.

Deborah’s research involves sampling the populations of feral and commercial bees in order to analyze the mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA for comparison.  The results indicate that the populations of managed honeybees in the western part of the United States, are genetically different from the populations in the south-eastern part of the country.  What’s more–the feral populations’ genetics show that they are a separate gene-pool altogether, which means they serve as a reservoir of genetic variability for our managed populations of honeybees.

Scientists play a crucial role

These discoveries spurred Deborah’s work with the Feral Bee Project.  Sponsored by the North Caroline State University, the project asks beekeepers and citizen scientists to log the location of wild honeybee hives they find so that researchers can monitor them.  They even offer an app for your iphone or ipad to assist in mapping these feral colonies.

The research that Deborah and scientists like her are doing for the beekeeping community helps us to understand how we can better manage our colonies.  By knowing and understanding the genetics of our bees we can derive better management techniques, select for desirable traits in our bees, and keep healthier bees by ensuring their genetic diversity.

Read more about this year’s MSBA conference in up-coming posts!

UMaine studies how to enhance native pollinator habitat

dr hanes & eric venturini

dr hanes & eric venturiniAt the August meeting of the Somerset Beekeepers, we hosted two of UMaine’s academics who have been actively researching native bees in Maine and in the agricultural system.  Dr. Sam Hanes’ is an anthropologist studying the perceptions growers have relating to the benefits of incorporating native pollinators into their farming efforts, and the methods they are using to do so (read more about Dr. Hanes’ presentation in this earlier post).  While Eric Venturini is a masters degree student studying methods for enhancing native pollinator habitat. Read more