At 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.
Because commercial honeybee populations are decreasing in America, farmers are looking for alternative methods of crop pollination, such as incorporating native pollinators. Native bees are easily overlooked, since they often don’t fit the stereotypical yellow and black honeybee image, and can range in size–with some species as tiny as 5mm to other species, such as bumblebees, that can be as large as your thumb. Studies show that while honeybee pollination can significantly impact fruit-set approximately 14% of the time, wild bees influence fruit-set in every instance.
And yet, interestingly enough, studies also indicate that the interaction between native species and honeybees on the same flowers promote increased activity on those flowers, and the flowers nearby. Which I feel is important to mention because I am often asked how I can be a honeybee beekeeper and a conservationist of native bees at the same time, since common perception is that the honeybee is infringing on the territory and foraging range of the local pollinators.
Eric explained that because most of Maine’s blueberry fields are surrounded by conifer forests, they are not a hospitable habitat for pollinating insects, because once the blueberry bloom is over there really isn’t anything available for these insects to eat. So his project revolves around pollinator plantings that he has established alongside blueberry fields here in Maine, made up of 3 test strips including: A) natural regenerative habitat, B) a wildflower mix he has compiled himself with the help of some seed companies, and C) clover.
Since a number of trees offer early-season pollen and nectar sources before the blueberries blossom, these wildflower seed mixes are made up of flowers that bloom after the blueberries, to provide food for native bees all season long–filling a gap in the local bloom phenology.
Check out this post about trees that offer pollen and nectar sources for pollinators early in the season.
Then Eric will collect samples of bumblebee pollen in order to study it to determine which flowers the pollen is coming from, enabling him to understand which flowers are pollinator favorites. It’s an on-going study, but so far he’s been able to see that bumblebees preferred the clover, particularly the sweet yellow clover, though there were a number of solitary bees and some honeybees bringing in clover pollen. While the solitary bees seemed to bring in more pollen from the wildflower mix, and some bumblebees too. But none of the bees brought pollen from the natural regenerative strip.
So the conclusion that I personally have drawn is that a good mixture for a pollinator wildflower meadow should include clovers and wildflowers.
And what flowers were included in Eric’s magic mix??? Lots of aster-family flowers (which are typically flowers with many single petals–like daisies, sunflowers, etc.) like plains coreopsis and echinacea, but also boneset and lavender hyssop. I don’t think there is any one perfect combination–I’m sure what attracts pollinators on your farm or in your backyard is going to depend on your region, so do your homework (check out our “Recommended Resources” page for more about farming for bees and pollinator conservation) and don’t be afraid to experiment like Eric has done.