Turning to Native Bees as Pollinators Amid Honeybee Die-Off

Northeast fruit growers look to gain more knowledge about more solitary bees

Bumblebees pollinate too, but are loners.
Little is yet known about the needs and habitat of solitary pollinators like bumblebees. Photo:Roo72 (Wikimedia Commons)
Turning to Native Bees as Pollinators Amid Honeybee Die-Off
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Turning to Native Bees as Pollinators Amid Honeybee Die-Off


Since 2006, much of the West has experienced unusually sharp declines in honeybee numbers, so much so that the unprecedented decline was given a name: Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where worker bees seem to simply vanish. While scientists ponder the reasons for the collapse of honeybees, fruit farmers face extra pressure to pollinate their crops. Now, a handful of researchers in the Northeast are proposing that fruit growers in Maine, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut might look to the lesser-known members of the bee family to take up the slack. 

A bumblebee gathered pollen from a cosmos flower near a foggy blueberry field in Blue Hill, Maine. This big black and yellow member of the Apidae family is a native bee, unlike its cousin the honeybee, which isn't actually native to the US at all. Honeybees only been in North America for as long as Europeans have been here; before they were here, there were the mason bees, sweat bees, and bumblebees.

"These native pollinators are always around and they're in the background and they can provide very important economic benefits from pollination," said Frank Drummond. He is an insect specialist working on a five year research project that's shifting the spotlight from the European honeybee to the numerous other native bees.

"We have over 250 species of bees that reside in Maine and that live naturally in the landscape that perform pollination services," Drummond said.

But those services gone largely unnoticed. It's easy to see why honeybees have managed to dominate the field for hundreds of years. Not only do they provide products like honey and wax, but as pollinators, farmers know more about them. They congregate in colonies which makes them easy to transport and control. By contrast, many native bees are actually solitary creatures. They can't be corralled or moved around easily, and they're often small and easily missed. For this reason said Drummond, it takes a lot more insect knowledge to exploit the potential of native bees. For this reason, many blueberry farmers in Maine pollinate their crops by renting commercial hives of honeybees.

"But, what has happened since the 1990s is that honeybee prices have increased four fold. And that the uncertainty of honeybees now because of colony collapse disorder has made honey bees less certain in the future, and so now it's really the time to start thinking about a more secure sustainable method of pollination, and that involves relying on native pollinators," he said.

"There is a dearth of knowledge about these native bees. We don't really know all the players or their biology yet, and so figuring out how to present habitat for them that will improve their chances of contributing to the blueberry crop starts with figuring out who's out there and what do they need for habitat," said Allison Dibble. She's a botanist and ecologist working with Drummond on the native bee project.

She's busy weeding and overseeing a carefully controlled strip of brightly flowering plants. Dibble has laid out a smorgasbord of blooms for bees, all different colors and varieties. Surprisingly, not much is known about what native bees really like to eat or what attracts them. And how and where farmers can maximize such strips of tasty flowers is still unclear. Aaron Hoshide is a farm economist. He said whether or not a grower is going to reap much benefit from providing bee habitat, is something that has to be calculated on a case by case basis.

"That acre of pollinator strip that you put in that is costing you anywhere from $500 to $900 has to be borne by the cash crop," Hoshide said. "So the question is how many acres of the cash crop is associated with that acre of strip."

In other words, if a farmer has ten acres of berries to an acre of flower strip which costs $600 dollars to put in, the farmer will need to get an extra $60 per blueberry acre to break even on the bee strip. There are many variables involved to making blueberries pay, said Hoshide. Some less developed farms may be at a disadvantage, because it will take more to prepare undeveloped land for the habitat. But with farmers paying as much as $1,000 per acre just for honeybee hive rental, a sustainable population of low maintenance pollinators is an attractive prospect for blueberry farmers like Todd Cheney of Blue Hill.

"I'd like to see the farm self-sufficient, where everything we needed to manage the blueberry crop was right here," Cheney said. "It would save you a lot of money, you'd be managing in a sustainable way, that's why we're interested in this."

In addition to helping the fruit industry, the study is necessary for a more sobering reason. Little is known about the health and numbers of native bee populations. Some species in Southern New England have already become extinct. If Colony Collapse Disorder can wipe out honeybees, Frank Drummond said there's no guarantee that something similar can't happen to native bees.