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Native bees are necessary for farms, researcher says

courtesy Nick Dorian

Honeybees are necessary for the way we do industrial agriculture, says Nick Dorian.

He’s a bee researcher at Tufts University. He says imagine an almond field, where you can drive sixty miles an hour on the highway for several minutes and see nothing but almond trees. This kind of monoculture is to his mind what we mean when we say industrial farming. And it’s a hard place to survive if you’re a bee.

“There’s nothing else to eat for a bee in that landscape. It’s almonds and there’s no weeds, it’s just almond trees,” Nick says. “And so for three weeks of the year when almond trees are blooming, that landscape is pumping out pollen and nectar but for a native bee that needs to also mate and also find a place to nest and maybe is not perfectly timed with almonds because almonds are not from here it’s really hard to live in that landscape it’s a desert effectively for 50 weeks out of the year.”

We have to bring European honeybees into these landscapes in order to pollinate these monoculture crops. But Nick says on more diversified farms, like most of those we see on the Cape and Islands, there are all kinds of opportunities to create habitat for native bee species.  

“Bees need three things throughout their life. They need food from flowers, they need places to nest, and they need safe, undisturbed spots to spend the winter.”

It’s these last two criteria—the places to nest and safe spots to spend the winter—that many of us don’t tend to think about. 

“For example. Squash bees: incredibly effective pollinators of squash, like pumpkins and zucchinis. But they live on farm, underground, often beneath squash plants. So here’s a conundrum: do you till your squash fields? If you till your squash fields it makes planting easier, but you also potentially disrupt your squash bee nests. And so I’m not saying there’s a right answer but it can’t just be a flip of a switch we have to think about the insects we want to support and then creating habitat for them as well.”

In general, because so many native bees nest underground or in standing crop stubble, its harder to create habitat for them in tilled fields. But margins can provide habitat and so can perennial crops like asparagus or rhubarb or fruit and nut trees that don’t need tilling.

“The blueberry farmers up in Washington County, in Maine have demonstrated that you can harvest a crop like blueberries and support tremendous bee biodiversity there are some great studies from the University of Maine that demonstrate just how many different species you can find on a blueberry crop in the blueberry fields of Maine and studies with blueberries in the southeast have shown that the more different kinds of bees visiting your flowers the more stable from year to year is your yield and the more profitable is your yield. In essence it's not just the act of having a bee on the flower but it’s the act of having multiple kinds of bees.”

This requires first identifying the bees that are native to our area and to specific local crops and then learning about their life cycles and relationships with plants, habitat, ground cover, disturbances like fire, and even other insects. This might sound like a lot of effort, but Nick says it’s important. 

“We can't rely on a single pollinator for all of our of our crops. You would never build a stock portfolio with a single stock and expect it to respond to all the unforeseen market fluctuations. Why would we ever build a food system around a single pollinator?”

Of course this is exactly what we’ve done with European honeybees. Nick Dorian says he understands why we’ve done this—honeybees can be managed in boxes and shipped all over the country—but he thinks that if we can rethink farms not only as commercial landscapes but also as habitats we’ll build a more productive and resilient food system.

Bees aren’t our only native pollinators—the big five are bees, wasps, beetles, hover flies, and butterflies. Find a link to Nick Dorian’s website where you can learn more about his research on native bees, here: https://nicholasdorian.weebly.com/

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.