Ecologist Examining Loss of Native Bees

University of Maine professor of insect ecology Frank Drummond has received $3.3 million as part of a larger $6.6 million grant-funded regional study of native bees, which are necessary and critical players in fruit and berry crop pollination in the Northeast.

The four-state research project comes at a time when wild honey bee populations have all but disappeared and commercial honey bee populations are shrinking because of parasites, pesticides and landscapes that are insufficient to provide wild flower food resources such as pollen and nectar for the bees and their young, which can mean starvation of next year’s bees.

A consequence is that fruit and berry growers face increasing costs to rent beehives for crop pollination, when more native, wild bees could be relied upon, Drummond says. During the next five years, the collaborative project will construct a
detailed assessment of the role of native bees in the pollination of low-bush blueberries in Maine, cranberries in Massachusetts, squash in Connecticut and apples in New York. In addition, ecological factors that enhance bee conservation will be another focus of the research, says Drummond, the principal investigator of the research being done with bees in Maine blueberry fields. The project will be among the most extensive of its kind in the U.S.

Hive rental is one of the biggest and increasing costs for fruit growers, Drummond says. The project will determine ways to reduce dependence on commercial bees by relying more on native bees, which he says are a largely untapped resource, and also to create environments favorable to bees.

“Native bees have been here since the melting of the glaciers and are a natural and permanent aspect of the landscape, but they are poorly understood,” Drummond says. “With the uncertainty and loss of honey bees, the likelihood rises for continued price increases. Some growers already rely upon native bees but also supplement this natural pollination force with commercial bees. Some growers, however, are unaware of the value of native bees.”

Drummond, also a University of Maine Cooperative Extension entomology specialist, says researchers will provide insight into how to enhance environments for sustainable wild bee populations, along with recommendations on pesticide use or avoidance by growers to protect both wild and commercial honey bees, and bumble bees, which also assist in crop pollination. Sustainable environments can include landscaping modifications and management practices on farms and fields.

Faculty researchers, with the assistance of UMaine graduate and undergraduate students, will conduct interviews and surveys to assess grower knowledge and perceptions that may influence the grower community’s likelihood to adopt measures that will enhance pollination services, according to Drummond. By better understanding pollinator communities in each crop system, characterizing levels of pollination deficits across sites, crops and regions, and understanding how landscape and farm-scale factors can influence pollinator diversity, researchers can assemble an outreach plan, a “pollination toolbox,” and grower workshops to enable growers to determine whether a pollination deficit exists, and if so, what to do about it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing funding for the project, to be matched by several Northeastern states and grower organizations. The project involves UMaine and four other research institutions: University of Massachusetts, which is coordinating the research, Cornell University, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and the University of Tennessee, which will maintain a research-based native bee website through eXtension, a national network of Cooperative Extension groups.

In addition to Drummond, other University of Maine study participants include Cyndy Loftin, a spatial and landscape ecologist; Alison Dibble, a botanist and pollination ecologist; David Yarborough, a UMaine Extension professor and blueberry specialist; Aaron Hoshide, an economist; and Samuel Hanes, an anthropologist. In addition, Drummond says five graduate students and dozens of undergraduate research assistants at UMaine will be hired throughout the five-year project.

Contact: Frank Drummond, (207) 581-2989; George Manlove, (207) 581-3756