The changing nature of Maine's bee populations

How native bee populations, local beekeeping, and guerrilla gardening in Maine can help the suffering honeybee.

by Emily du Houx

Unless you’ve been living in a soil-nesting bee’s hole-in-the-ground, you’ve probably heard about the plight of the honeybee. They have been featured in just about every major national magazine, from National Geographic to Forbes, and a quick search for the suffering invertebrate on Maine's own Portland Press Herald reveals a litany of headlines about everything from pesticides to a rolled-over hive transport truck.

On the State and Federal policy level, bee-related initiatives include the establishment of a "Pollinator Task Force" by the USDA and the White House with the stated goal of devising a "National Pollinator Health Strategy" by November and, in Maine, a bill was introduced to ban neonicitinoids, pesticides possibly harmful to pollinators. The bill has since been withdrawn with the intention to reintroduce it next year.

On the corporate level, Whole Foods is partnering with the nonprofit Xerces Foundation, an organization dedicated to the protection of at-risk invertebrates, for their "Give Bees A Chance" campaign, and on the individual level, people from all walks of life seem to be taking interest. Hobbyist beekeepers are on the rise; sculptor Blake Hiltunen is working with Overland Apiaries in Jefferson and Portland, Maine to build a beehive that will allow viewers to look inside a working colony and see what usually remains hidden, and, on the quirkier side of things, a Rhode Island woman is making a documentary about a man who claims to cure ailments with bee stings.

Even criminals are getting in on the act; Bill Lewis, president of the California Beekeeper’s Association, reports that bee thefts are increasing as the value of hives increases.

A bee approaches its foodsource, a flower in Maine (image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

This interest in honeybees has ballooned since 2006, when an alarming and potentially devastating phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder hit hard. In Colony Collapse, honeybees abandon their hive en mass for seemingly inexplicable reasons, leaving the Queen and sometimes younger bees and some larvae behind. The abandonments lead to unprecedented numbers of bee deaths. Before 2006, beekeepers could expect to lose about ten percent of their bees from natural causes during the course of the year; in 2006 that number abruptly jumped to forty percent, and ever since it has fluctuated between thirty and forty percent, mostly due to Colony Collapse.

Large-scale honeybee deaths are bad news for all of us, since honeybees are used to pollinate a great majority of crops that we eat daily.

While the exact cause of Colony Collapse hasn't been pinned down, it's becoming clear that there isn't really one cause; honeybees are falling victim to a toxic cocktail of pesticides, climate change effects, stressful commercial bee raising practices, mites, viruses, and fungal and bacterial pathogens.

Honeybees have Mediterranean origins and came over to the United States for the first time in the early seventeenth century, serving as pollinators and providers of light by way of wax candles and sweeteners by way of honey. Because they aren’t native to America, they have been breeding from a relatively small gene pool, which causes a lack of genetic diversity and a fairly fragile immune system. When that immune system is further weakened by factors like pesticides, they are left very susceptible to pests like the verroa mite, which feeds on their blood.

According to Frank Drummond, Pollination Ecologist at the University of Maine, "What we’re seeing with these bees is largely an immune system phenomena, not just something that’s a major poison that they’re being exposed to -- it’s much more complicated than that.”

Frank Drummond in the blueberry barrens (Image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

 

Drummond was part of a five-million-dollar national research project that studied bee colony health over time, starting in 2008 and wrapping up now. He has been keeping bees for 46 years and remembers a time when there were wild honeybees.

"Now they’re all gone,” he said, “You [used to be able to] build boxes and collect bees for free; you could be a really lousy beekeeper and let them sit in the corner of your yard, and year after year they would be there, but now we’ve demonstrated that if you buy bees and put them in a box and manage them but don’t manage them for any of the parasites or diseases, the colony is likely to die sometime halfway through the second year. When I was a kid that was totally different. That’s sad to see.”

BUSY AS A BEEKEEPER

Despite the difficulties in becoming a hobbyist beekeeper now, the number of small-scale beekeepers in the state has rebounded to levels not seen since the late seventies and early eighties, before parasitic mites became a real issue.

In Hampden, apiarist and swarm collector Peter Cowin has personally witnessed this boon in hobbyist beekeeping.

After his successes rescuing stranded swarms and extracting unwanted colonies from people's homes, he started teaching adult education courses in basic beekeeping in Hampden and Orono; following on that he almost immediately got asked to teach in several other locations including Ellsworth, Bucksport, Newport and Bangor.

All classes were filled to capacity with people that ranged in age from eight to eighty. Cowin reports that, out of those 160-plus students, 75 to 80 percent plan on starting hives this year.

He teaches classes through The Maine Beekeepers Association, which has increased its membership from 200 to just over 600 in recent years.

Honey flows into a pickle barrel after extraction for a hobbyist hive (image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

Open hive day with Peter Cowin (image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

Tony Jadczak, Maine’s very own State Bee Inspector, confirms that over the last five or six years the number of hobby beekeepers has increased in both Maine and nationally. He reports that there were 860 registered hobbyist beekeepers in the state in 2013.

Not all states have a State Bee Inspector, but Maine requires that hobbyists obtain a license for their hives, and it’s the State Bee Inspector’s job to carry out routine inspections on both hobbyist and commercial operations to look for various pests and health issues.

When Jadczak inspects a hive, he first calms the bees with smoke, which makes them gorge on honey and nectar and also dampens their ability to communicate with one another. He then looks closely at the wax, pollen, honey, nectar and brood.

Jadczak has been a hobbyist beekeeper for 43 years and has seen many ups and downs in his bees over time. When talking about these fluctuations, he quotes Winnie the Pooh, saying, “‘You just never know about bees.”

The character of bees is something that many apiarists can speak at length about, and it’s something that, as Cowin points out, hobbyists are in some ways better suited to understanding than commercial beekeepers, because hobbyists can pay special attention to each colony and its particular habits. Different hives act differently because of their genetics and social structure and even due to the time of day.

For instance, bees that are harvesting from a buckwheat crop might be happy and fairly docile in the morning and early afternoon, but buckwheat stops producing nectar at around 2 pm, which drives the bees mad with frustration and makes them difficult to deal with.

Cowin rescuing a swarm (image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

 

"You know from the moment you crack open the hive whether it's going to be a good experience or a bad experience, because they sound different,” said Cowin, “You can hear them. The tone of the buzz is different. They're talking to you."

Although not everyone has the kind of dialogue that Cowin has with bees (his abilities have earned him the nickname “Bee Whisperer”), most hobbyist beekeepers can pay more attention to the habits of their hives than commercial operations can. On a large agricultural scale, bees are dealt with in such vast numbers that managers can't take the time to, as Cowin said, “give the bees tender love and attention.”

Commercially, honeybees come into Maine from states as far apart as California and Florida. In 2013 the number of colonies brought into the state reached a record high, 74,772, second only to California in the nation.

“The bees are constantly on the move, because the [blueberry] bloom only lasts three or four weeks,” according to Jadczak.

The transportation process can be pretty stressful. Bees feed almost exclusively on whatever crop they’re exposed to for a period of time before being exposed to another crop, which they feed on exclusively before abruptly traveling to a new one. This lack of dietary diversity can weaken their immune systems.

“They’re going from one monoculture to another monoculture to another monoculture to the next,” Cowin said. “It’s like feeding your kids only the beef patty on the hamburger and then two weeks later you're feeding them only the bread of the hamburger, and then another two weeks it's just the pickles. It's really bad for the bees to have such a lack of diversity in their diet."

Bees owned by hobbyists feed on a diverse local diet, unlike commerical bees. Despite the benefits of small-scale beekeeping, even if all the hobbyists in Maine rented out their hives, they would not be able to meet the enormous commercial demand of Maine’s agricultural industry. Even so, they provide a kind of a backup to the commercial system.

“The hobbyist beekeepers will be [a] big safety net for honeybees,” said Cowin.

He rents out a few of his hives to farms. "It's a bit of fun, he said, "as well as providing a service and being paid, so there's a lot of that on a small scale."

DIVERSE PASTURES

“[Colony Collapse] has made people more aware of honeybees and pollination, and it’s made people want to help and plant pollinator gardens and maybe try to raise honeybees, which has been really good,” said Drummond, who sees a bit of a silver lining emerging around an apparent disaster.

It has also led to increased funding for research into another important and often overlooked piece of the puzzle: native bees.

“People are just starting to survey native bees to find out what kind of bees there are,” said Drummond, adding that the only real records of native bee populations come from the sixties and forties, but beyond that there is very little data.

A native bee of Maine, the Blueberry Bee (image courtesy of Folklore Farm).

 

Honeybees are an agricultural favorite because they're non-aggressive; they winter well; they are excellent honey-collectors; and they’re social, so they transport easily, but native bee populations can cushion losses and also lighten the load on the overworked worker bees of the agricultural industry.

Drummond's current project, Pollination Security in the Northeast is a collaboration of scientists from four states who are looking closely at agricultural systems to see how vulnerable they are. The team is also working to develop strategies for farmers to relieve the pressure on honeybees, partially by bolstering native bee populations.

They have developed strategies for different farm sizes and budgets, and they have a site online with various educational writings and videos for farmers and gardeners, offering suggestions backed by research on how to attract and increase native bee populations.

Native bees aren’t social in the way that honeybees are, so instead of living in hives they live in nests either in the ground or in trees. Many bee species are attracted to sunny, well-drained, sloping patches of ground with a little bit of clay content.

A video on the Pollination Security website shows examples of this type of habitat so that farmers or gardeners can build the land around the edges of their crops into bee-friendly territory, hopefully attracting ground-nesting bees. Similarly, above-ground bee nests, which are basically a block of wood with holes drilled into it, can attract native bees and can be put up around the perimeter of a farm.

Part of the goal of the pollinator project is to develop a better idea of what types of flowers will attract bees to provide farmers with a list of options that they can use to decide which plants to raise given their budget and climate.

Wildflowers of Maine (image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

 

According to the Pollination Security site, commercial beekeepers could use bees other than honeybees as pollinators (bumblebees and alfalfa leaf cutters are mentioned specifically), but it would just require a very different commercial set-up, one not as convenient or cost-effective. Basically the whole pollination industry is set up around a single species, the honeybee.

"Native bees just haven’t been on the radar much until now,” reported Drummond, “People are really starting to think of them as more of a valuable ecosystem resource."

Maine has over 250 species of native bees, and they come in a variety of colors and sizes.

"Some are bright blue or green... they're all rainbow colors," said Nicole DeBarber from Folklore Farm at Fortenberry in the Washington County blueberry barrens.

Folklore Farm works to promote awareness of this widely diverse group of insects through drop-in workshops in K-8 Maine schools, where students decorate bee nests like the ones recommended on the Pollination Security website.

The nests are pre-made from donated lumber. Students add inscriptions and designs to them with the knowledge that their functional pieces of art will be installed in a garden or field to attract native bees to pollinate crops.

Bee nests produced in a Folklore Farm workshop (image courtesy of Folklore Farm).

A student in one of DeBarber's workshops (image courtesy of Folklore Farm).

According to DeBarber, the students get really into their projects, and some of them get especially creative.

"[One student] made a bee hotel with windows and a swimming pool," said DeBarber.

Others draw colorful scenes, rainbows, or flowers on giant bee wings. They also play pollinator games to learn about the process through which bees turn flowers into food.

Sometimes DeBarber brings in banners designed by The Beehive Design Collective in Machias, an artist collaborative that creates powerful, copyright-free educational images about globally important issues, like the story of the bee.

Recently student projects were installed in Two Rivers Park on Downeast Coastal Conservancy land near apple trees, blueberry plants, and other wild-bee-friendly flowers. In April, Folklore partnered with several other organizations to install five hundred pollinator habitats created by students from seven area elementary and middle schools; they are now at local farms and Bad Little Falls Park in Machias.

Bad Little Falls, where five hundred pollinator habitats were recently installed.

Image courtesy of Folklore Farm.

Students really respond to the rich diversity they didn’t know existed in their backyards.

"The kids love it," DeBarber said, "It's really fun to see how blown away they are when they learn about all the different kinds of bees."

She partially attributes her desire to spread the word about native bees to the fact that her grandfather was a beekeeper and also to her personal love of “bugs and creatures.”

Cowin is also working to promote awareness about native bees, launching projects to bolster local populations, including the development of specialized packets of seeds, which include about twenty different varieties of seeds for flowers that attract bees and are not treated with pesticides. He plans on using them for fundraisers and is bringing them to local schools.

He is also making a line of yard signs for gardeners who plant bee-friendly flowers, broadcasting the grower’s affinity for native bees, and he is thinking about making his own line of "seed bombs." Cowin said “seed bombs” are sometimes used by “guerilla gardeners,” people who secretly plant gardens in abandoned lots or barren public spaces. A pro-bee “seed bomb” is basically a bunch of seeds like the ones available in Cowin’s seed packets, mixed with potter’s clay, rolled into a ball and dried out, so that it more or less looks like a mud ball. These are tossed or “bombed” into an empty lot with the hope that the seeds will take root and a garden will bloom.

Cowin's wild flower packets (image courtesy of Peter Cowin).

THE FUTURE OF NATIVE POPULATIONS

Drummond reports that there are some concerns that native bees populations are being lost. The rusty patched bumblebee, for instance, once made up about 20 percent of the bee population in Maine, but now it’s extremely rare, and there are only a few places in the state it can currently be found. Similarly, the yellowbanded bumblebee used to make up half of the bumblebee population in Maine, but now it’s down to five-to-ten percent, while the impatient bumblebee, which was not common in sixties, now makes up about twenty percent of the community.

No one really knows what is causing these shifts.

“The bee community is changing,” Drummond said. “But it’s hard to sort out exactly why, yet.”

A few years ago scientists discovered something called “pathogen spillover”: diseases that were thought to be confined to honeybees began to appear in native bee populations.

“[We] don’t know whether it’s just that they’re being exposed but not really developing these diseases, and it’s not a real problem, or [if] this is a real concern [and] what is happening to honeybees is sort of the 'canary in the coal mine' and could spell disaster for the native bees,” said Drummond.

The pathogen discovery raises a lot of questions: did these diseases actually come from native populations but just hadn’t been noticed? Were the diseases once thought of as honeybee diseases actually already present in native bees but were overlooked? Drummond said we don’t have the answers yet, “People are just starting to ask some of these questions."