Among the first flowers to bloom in the spring, dandelions are important food sources for Maine's pollinators, including honey bees. Credit: Julia Bayly

When it comes to bees, the more people know about the insects’ habitat needs, the better their populations can thrive.

That’s the idea behind the recently released report, “Bees and Their Habitats in Four New England States,” co-written by Francis Drummond, professor of insect ecology and insect pest management at the University of Maine.

The report is available online at Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station’s website and was written for the layperson interested in promoting bee habitat but who may not have a strong science background.

It looks at the 275 bee species that live in Maine, and what can be done to preserve their species’ unique habitats and food sources. Regionwide, 401 species of bees live in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“We focused on bee habitat and flowers that are requisites for having bees in the first place,” Drummond said. “Turned out, there was not a lot known.”

Working with fellow academics Alison Dribble, Kalyn Bickerman-Martens, Sara Bushmann, Aaron Hoshide, Megan Leach and Eric Venturini of the University of Maine; Anne Averill and Kim Skym from the University of Massachusetts; Sidney Bosworth from the University of Vermont Extension; and Annie White from University of Vermont, Drummond said the team pulled together all the available literature and information on northern New England bee habitat.

“We wanted to write a document aimed at people working for natural resource or conservation agencies, municipalities, state agencies and anyone concerned with bee health,” Drummond said. “It was really fun to be involved and interact with so many people from all different perspectives — we had economists, horticulturists and agriculturists provide information on how to plant bee gardens and maintain them.”

Drummond said the focus on historical bee habitat grew out of a lack of knowledge on the historical relationship among bees and their host plants.

“One of the things that all of us did not think about that much was that in the 1700s and 1800s much of New England was open farmland,” Drummond said. “Pretty much since the 1930s and 1940s agriculture has been disappearing in New England, and a lot of those lands are naturally coming back into forests.”

In Maine, there is good news for the bees according to the USDA’s 2012 census, which showed land in the state used for farming had actually bucked that trend and increased by 8 percent over the preceding five years.

Because open spaces or along forest edges are prime bee habitat, the regrowth of forests means prime housing real estate for the bees is disappearing, Drummond said.

“Way back when the area was all forestland, northern New England was not a great place for bees and we are kind of reverting back to that,” he said. “It’s a natural process, but on the flip side we still have some important agriculture that relies on bees’ pollination.”

Specifically, the study looked at lowbush blueberries and cranberries as crops which benefit from healthy bee populations.

The study found that bee habitat is most beneficial when its existing flowering plants are free from pesticides, infrequently mowed, and planted with multiple species that provide the bees pollen and nectar throughout the growing season.

“There is nothing too small when it comes to pollinator habitat enhancement,” Drummond said. “There are roles for farmers, city planners, home gardeners, landscapers, greenhouse growers, park managers and land managers.”

Drummond and his team hopes people will get their hands on the report and do what they can where they can to help Maine’s bees.

“Even people with not a lot of land can help,” Drummond said. “They can encourage flowers in their lawns [because] we have this idea you have to mow your lawn so all that is in it is the grass.”

By allowing lawns to grow a bit, it encourages the introduction of pollinator-friendly species such as dandelions, small mints and clovers.

“These flowers are pretty, and the bees do really well with them,” Drummond said.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.