Two native sweat bees. Photo by Daniel B. VanWart
Carpenter bee. Photo by Daniel B. VanWart
Eastern bumblebee. Photo by Daniel B. VanWart
Half black bumblebee. Photo by Daniel B. VanWart
By Gail J. VanWart
Photos © Daniel B. VanWart, used with permission
My husband, Daniel, and I steward an organic wild blueberry farm in Dedham, Maine. It’s been in the family for 149 years but has recently taken on the additional function of serving as a native pollinator sanctuary. As soon as we tell people about the farm, they ask how many hives we have or if we sell honey. Then we try to explain the difference between honeybees “from away” and our native bumblebees and other pollinating insects that are natural inhabitants of our environment – including bees that don’t even resemble a bee at all. To add to the fun, we point out that some native pollinators aren’t even bees. They include moths, butterflies, ants, bats, birds and various types of flies. All of our native pollinators, however, have three things in common: They are wild; they exist where nature intended for them to live; and they provide free labor for the farmer. Remember that!
Honeybees, native to Europe, were introduced to North American in the 1600s. Native Americans even nicknamed honeybees the “white man’s fly” when they originally arrived here. Honeybees later became well known as the commercial pollinators of choice because of the type of monoculture crop practices that came into existence after World War II and the ability to manage honeybees in hives. In fact honeybees became so well known in that role that we started to forget that everything that grew in North America before the honeybee arrived obviously was pollinated by pollinators that already lived here.
Honeybees are amazing creatures, and beekeeping is a fascinating and educational experience; plus nearly everyone loves their super-food, honey. But we started to pay heightened attention to their worth as pollinators on our farm when others started reporting mysterious declines in honeybee populations.
We observed both honeybees and native bees at work in our organic wild blueberry crop fields and noticed which insects were actually getting the job done: a variety of species of bumblebees, tiny sweat bees, butterflies and the accidental pollination by Allegheny mound ants. The honeybees were far more interested in lilac and apple blossoms than in the little bell-shaped blossoms of wild blueberries – for good reason: Honeybees aren’t really designed for the type of pollination services our blueberry blossoms desire. Blueberries and cranberries are among the plants with poricidal (tube shaped) anthers in their flowers, which hide their pollen inside, leaving it accessible only through a small opening in its tip. This type of flower releases pollen best to buzz pollination methods that honeybees can’t provide – but in which some of our native bee species specialize.
Buzz pollination is a miraculous process in itself. Bees with the ability to provide it use sonication – by the buzzing produced by vibrations of their flight muscles – to expel pollen from anthers inside a flower. They do so by generating forces up to 30 G to accomplish the task of collecting the pollen they need in the spring to feed their offspring. Forty species of wild native pollinators among the 270 species found in Maine are particularly suited for pollinating our wild blueberry crop.
We noted another advantage of native pollinators: They are always there when the plants need them; we don’t have to worry about early springs or late shipments of bee packages or hives.
Native bumblebees also work in cooler and windier conditions than honeybees, which won’t work well unless the weather is nice and the temperature about 50 F or higher. It’s as if Nature knew what she was doing when she placed a variety of wild bee species in our fields!
That was our “ah ha” moment: the realization that we needed to stop struggling with trying to maintain honeybee hive populations for our crops and instead start helping the native populations of bees that exist naturally in our environment.
What is harming the honeybee also harms wild bees and butterflies and, inadvertently, humans. Pollinators need a healthy, diverse habitat. Bumblebees and butterflies, most notably the monarch, like so many other animals, are struggling in our modern world with its climate change, loss of natural habitat due to herbicides and human development, and the serious health effects and fatalities caused by pesticides and other chemical pollution. Without pollination we cannot survive, as food resources for the world’s growing human population would be cut by at least one-third without pollinators.
We aren’t scientists – we’re just farmers researching and observing what we see happening in nature – but we do rely heavily on experts and their studies to back up what we see. We observed, clearly, that the less we relied on honeybee pollination, the more native wild bees were present in our fields. Apparently, other people have noticed, too. A study done in Sweden by Herbertsson et al. noted an 81 percent decline in native bee species when honeybees were introduced into their habitat – because native species of bees are short-range fliers and honeybees are long range fliers. Also, honeybees aggressively collect pollen and nectar. They strip the food supply from an area swiftly and then move on for up to 3 to 5 miles, leaving the short-range species without sufficient forage to sustain itself. We had never thought about this before, and we now see native versus exotic (or invasive) species of bee populations from a different perspective.
We further learned that native pollinators evolved with the native plants in their region. The poor honeybee over the years has been forced to exist, in most cases, on forage with which it wasn’t genetically designed to exist.
You have to wonder if commercial crop pollination methods that place billions of honeybees in an area will eventually reduce native bee populations to unsustainable numbers.
Surely, we thought, we can’t save the entire world. So we decided to do something on our small piece of it to make a difference for native pollinators that live on our own land. When we saw a remarkable increase in bee and butterfly numbers within a few years by letting some non-crop-bearing fields grow wild, allowing native flowers and grasses to follow each other’s bloom like clockwork from the first dandelion in April to the last aster in fall, we realized we were indeed working with nature, not against it. In turn, nature started providing us with far better crop yields per acre. This seemed like a beautiful miracle, yet in reality it was only a return to the norm.
Then we thought, if we can achieve this success, so can others. Maybe we can try to save the entire world – one farm, one backyard and one school garden at a time. That’s when we started propagating common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), native herbs and native plants, specifically host plants to butterflies and preferred nectar resources for bees. Many farmers probably think we are a bit off our rockers to be encouraging the growth of the very “weeds” farmers have been eradicating for years. Nonetheless, we are more determined now than ever to advocate for our wild species of pollinators, especially since in January 2017 the rusty patched bumblebee, once abundant, was officially listed as critically endangered.
Walking on the trails in our flowering fields, viewing our demonstration pollinator gardens, and witnessing our well pollinated crops provides full awareness to all who visit our farm about how members of the ecosystem work together. Now we even offer our little milkweed seedlings and other plants for sale in the spring to provide the means for others – farmer, landscaper, homeowner, school teacher – to help in the worldwide effort to bring back the pollinators, one beneficial nectar plant at a time, in their own little piece of the world.
Plant it, don’t poison it, and the bees and butterflies will come. Nature will work with you if you don’t work against it.
Drummond, Francis, and Connie Stubbs, Wild Bee Conservation for Wild Blueberry Fields, UMaine Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet No. 630, 2003; https://extension.umaine.edu/blueberries/factsheets/bees/630-wild-bee-conservation-for-wild-blueberry-fields/
Flesher, John, AP News Break: Rusty Patched Bumblebee Declared Endangered, AP News, Jan. 10, 2017; https://apnews.com/5ec3850c5f524ce8bdaeee2e985df284/apnewsbreak-rusty-patched-bumblebee-declared-endangered
Hamers, Laurel, Much of the world’s honey now contains bee-harming pesticides, Science News, Oct. 5, 2017; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/much-worlds-honey-now-contains-pesticides-harm-bees
Herbertsson, L., et al., Competition between managed honeybees and wild bumblebees depends on landscape context. Basic and Applied Ecology (2016); https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1439179116300378?via%3Dihub
About the author: Gail and Daniel VanWart operate Peaked Mountain Farm and Native Pollinator Sanctuary (PeakedMountainFarm.biz) in Dedham, Maine, where they grow MOFGA-certified organic wild blueberries and milkweed seedlings. They sell from the farm and at their seasonal store, Naked Blueberry, in Bar Harbor.