In late May, when it’s time to pollinate the state’s blueberry barrens, millions of tiny migrant workers will arrive on trucks from warmer southern climes and get right to work zooming from blossom to blossom in Down East Maine.
While on the job, those migrant honeybees, which blueberry growers depend on to increase annual yields of the sweet blue fruit, are likely to brush wings with Maine’s own pollinator workforce of native bees. And while lots of people have read the dire headlines about the country’s dramatically declining honeybee population, they may not know that Maine’s native bees are largely bucking that trend, according to a University of Maine bee expert who is happy to share some positive buzz.
“I think it’s a very optimistic story,” Frank Drummond, professor of insect ecology, said. “In general, it seems that most of our native bees are pretty stable and not really in decline. The sampling I’ve done in blueberry fields shows that species are pretty much holding their own and doing OK. On average, the native bee population seems to be doing pretty good.”
That’s not the case with the native bees in many other states, he said. A new national study of wild bees has identified 139 agricultural counties in California, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, west Texas and the Mississippi River valley where the wild bees are declining as crop pollination demand is rising. According to researchers at the University of Vermont, if the wild bee decline continues, it could hurt U.S. crop production and add to farmers’ costs.
Two Maine counties show up on the national wild bee map: Hancock and Washington counties, where the lion’s share of the state’s blueberries are grown and where most of the imported honeybees are put to work. But instead of the angry red shade indicating a severe mismatch in wild bee abundance and pollinator demand that dominates places such as California’s Central Valley and the upper Midwest, Hancock and Washington counties are shown in less alarming shades of purple and blue. That sounds about right, Drummond said. Blueberry growers in those Maine counties do import an awful lot of honeybees to pollinate the crop, because they want to get the most berries possible and honeybees have helped them do that. They don’t import bees because Maine’s bees aren’t healthy. In fact, because of a number of factors, native Maine bees are healthier than those in lots of other states.
“In California and the Midwest, where there is really intensive agriculture, there are [not many] natural areas anymore to provide wildflowers to support bees,” he said. “Also, really intensive agriculture on average has more pesticides, and bees are stressed in part because of pesticides.”
But in Maine, the native bee outlook certainly has not remained stationary over the last years or decades. There are 275 species of native bees here, which help to pollinate the state’s plants, and not all are thriving.
“Insect populations fluctuate with environmental conditions,” David Yarborough, a wild blueberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “With the warming trends, you tend to see southern species moving in and northern species moving out. It’s a moving target, and there are a lot of considerations. It’s the plight of all animals: climate change, habitat destruction. Things aren’t the way they used to be and they aren’t going to go back.”
In Maine, the environmental fluctuation is perhaps unusual compared to other places. Over the past century, more conifer forests have grown up to replace abandoned fields and farmland, and the state is 93 percent forested. But the return to a more forested environment isn’t necessarily great for bees, according to Drummond.
“Open areas are great for bees. … Conifer forests don’t support the bee community really well,” he said. “The landscape is changing, and many people think that’s a good thing. The pristine landscapes of Maine were forested. But maybe bees are a casualty of that.”
Also, some native bees in Maine are struggling, perhaps because of climate change and perhaps because of diseases and pathogens. One of those species — the rusty patched bumblebee — recently was listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Once widespread in the U.S. and Canada, the species recently has experienced a steep decline.
“It’s really right now unknown as to why it disappeared,” Drummond said.
But another species that seemed to be disappearing in Maine five years ago, the yellow-banded bumble bee, is making a comeback.
“Now it’s exploding in population and doing really well,” Drummond said. “We don’t really know why. All we’re able to do right now is track bees.”
He does have some idea why Maine’s native bees are doing better than they are in some other states. Compared to big agriculture regions in the country, Maine still has lots of natural areas that support its native bees. Also, many residents and farmers are trying to encourage bees by planting pollinator habitat plantings, and the growth of organic farms around the state is a help, too, Drummond said.
“We even had a project with Casella Waste,” he said. “They’re putting in pollinator plantings on top of the landfills.”
Everything helps. That’s because bees were locavores before the word even existed, Drummond said, so taking small, local steps to improve their habitat can really make a difference.
“Bees mostly operate pretty locally, with the distance they fly just a couple hundred meters,” he said. “So individual people can have an impact. Everybody doing their little bit helps.”