Maine promotes native pollinators

somerset beekeepers

somerset beekeepersTuesday night the Somerset Beekeepers met for their monthly meeting, and were joined by a number of the county’s master gardeners in welcoming Dr. Sam Hanes and Eric Venturini, a masters degree student, both of whom came over from the University of Maine at Orono to speak with us.

I’ve mentioned before the good work Maine’s academics are doing in the field of apiculture and agriculture (check out pollinator conservation at MOFGA, post from last year), with scientists like Frank Drummond, Alison Dibble, and many more, all working to better understand Maine’s native pollinators and the role they play in our ecosystems.  In fact, Maine is a leading player in a USDA funded research project entitled “Pollination security for fruit and vegetables in the northeast”.  The project was funded by a 6.6 million dollar grant, and includes 5 different institutions across the northeast.

Read more about the project here and here.

As president of the Somerset Beekeepers, I’m always looking for interesting speakers to visit us at our monthly meetings, and I was elated when Eric agreed to come, with Dr. Hanes in tow.

dr hanes & eric venturini
Dr. Sam Hanes on the left, and Eric Venturini stands to the right.

Dr. Hanes’ presentation was titled “Maine Blueberry Growers’ Pollination Strategies and Perceptions of Native Pollinators”.  It’s a thought-provoking concept to include an anthropologist in these studies, since anthropology is the study of man-kind, and covers a broad range of study areas from social and biological sciences.

In his studies, Dr. Hanes is exploring the reasons why growers do or don’t adopt early innovations related to native pollinators.  He’s been looking closely at growers of blueberries and cranberries in Maine and Massachusetts, since these are two large industries in this region which both import honeybees for pollination.

With the decline of commercial honeybee populations across the United States, concern over pollination of these large-scale agricultural industries is increasing, and growers and farmers are looking at alternative means of pollination–either to reduce expenses as the cost of hive rentals increase, or to provide supplemental pollination when hive rentals are unable to meet the demands.

Currently, 75% of Maine’s blueberry growers rent honeybees for pollination, compared to the 94% of growers who are renting hives for cranberry production.  The average number of hives per acre for blueberry pollination is 3-4, versus 1-2 hives per acre for cranberries.  It was interesting to note that more hives per acre did not necessarily transfer into higher yields, basically once the area has been saturated with honeybee pollinators, there’s not much more a grower can do to increase their crop’s production.

According to his research so far, Dr. Hanes has been able to discern that approximately 15-20% of the grower population are “early innovators” who are adopting new or experimental practices for promoting pollination by native pollinators.

Dr. Hanes is looking at growers’ perceptions of native pollinators and their strategies for incorporating them into their operations.  Thanks to Frank Drummond’s work over the last decade promoting native pollinators through extension outreach, it’s more common in Maine for growers to go out of their way to help native bees than it is in the cranberry fields of Massachusetts.  Through polls taken at grower conventions, Dr. Hanes has been able to discern how farmers are helping native bees.

growers helping native bees statistics
BB stands for “blueberry”, while CB represents “cranberry”.

Another poll helps Dr. Hanes understand growers’ perceptions of how effective native pollinators are.

pollination from native bees
Again, BB represents “blueberry” and CB is short for “cranberry”.

Dr. Hanes has discovered that overall, growers seem to feel that native bees fill a critical gap in their agricultural systems.  Since native bees are more active in cool or inclement weather than the imported honeybees, they are especially important here in Maine where the seasons can be unpredictable.

To me these numbers indicate a growing awareness of the importance and benefits of native pollinators, which are a crucial aspect of a healthy ecosystem.  It’s inspirational to me, a 4-year beekeeper, and aspiring pollinator conservationist, to see my beloved home-state trending in this field, but it looks as though there’s still plenty of room for improvement.  I know that there are many more growers and farmers who can utilize these beneficial insects, and I will continue to work to do my own part for the cause.

Stay tuned for the up-coming post about Eric Venturini’s presentation, which was entitled: “Enhancing Native Pollinators in Maine; What to plant and how to plant it”!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!