Plants and Pollinators: An Overview

anatomy of a flowerrepublished with permission from
“100 Plants to Feed the Bees”
by the Xerces Society
for Invertebrate Conservation

Sidebars adapted from James H. Cane, Bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea:Apiformes) published in the Encyclopedia of Entomology,
2008. Vol. 2, pages 419-434

When we observe animals pollinating nearly 90 percent of the plant species found on earth, we are witnessing a process more than 250 million years in the making. Sexual reproduction among plants, from a botanical standpoint, is nothing more than the transfer of pollen grains from a flower’s male anthers to a flower’s female stigmas, enabling fertilization. Once transferred, pollen grains germinate, grow pollen tubes into the plant’s ovaries, and deliver gametes to produce seed and endosperm.

In very primitive plants, this process was carried out by wind or water. Between 245 million and 200 million years ago, however, the first flower-ing plants arose, with the earliest fossil records containing relatives of today’s magnolias and water lilies. During this prehistoric time frame flow-ering plants evolved two major reproductive adaptations: exposed male stamens that bear small, nutrient-rich pollen grains; and enclosed female carpels that protect ovules. These adaptations accelerated plant reproduction (and pollinator diversity), leading to diverse and dominant communi-ties of flowering plants that almost 100 million years ago had spread across the globe.

Plants Meet Pollinators

BeesBeetles, flies and wasps are thought to be the first pollinators, accidentally spreading pollen while feeding on flowers. This set the stage for more complex plant-pollinator relationships to evolve, including prehistoric flowering plants that first attracted passive pollinators by providing sugary nectar, protein-packed pollen, fragrant resins, and vitamin-rich fats.
Flowers then responded to particular pollinators, coevolving with them to provide diverse bloom times, colors, scents, shapes, sizes and rewards, and improving their reproductive efficiency. For example, flattened, large, scented, off-white flowers with accessible pollen, such as magnolia, attracted beetles, while tubular, large, scented, white flowers that bloom at night attracted moths.

Meanwhile, flowers also developed a variety of strategies to avoid self-fertilization and encourage genetic diversity:

• Self-incompatibility
• Physical distance between (male) anthers and (female) stigmas
• Male and female flower structures that are fertile at different times
• Separate male and female plants.

Enter the Bees
The widespread distribution of diverse flowering plants 100 million years ago coincided with the appearance of intentional pollinators: bees. Bees are believed to have coevolved with flowers from predatory wasps. In general, both bees and wasps consume sugars as adults and proteins as larvae. Herbivorous bee larvae eat pollen as their protein source, however, while wasp larvae are typically carnivorous.

Pollen is essential for the reproduction of both bees and flowers, so the two groups have coevolved for mutual success. Adult bees evolved behavioral and physiological adaptations to gather and transport pollen more efficiently, such as:
Buzz-Pollination – Flight muscles can crate sound vibrations that dislodge pollen from flowers

Floral Constancy – An individual pollinator may specialize in foraging one flower type

Pollen-Collecting Hairs – The “pollen basket” and other specialized hairs on a bee’s body carry pollen back to the colony

Although most bees are pollen generalists, capable of foraging on many plant species, many are specialists that forage on only a small group of specific flowers.

What Makes a Good Pollinator Plant?
A flower’s color, odor, shape, size, timing, and reward (nectar or pollen) can increase or decrease the number of visits by specific pollinators. Some examples of how plants “reach out” to bees and others:

Ultraviolet Invitations – Bees can see ultraviolet light but not red light; thus, flowers in the ultraviolet range attract more bee visits, while red-hued flow-ers reduce them.

Color Phases – Many flowers signal pollinators by changing color at different stages of development, attracting pollinators when they need them most, thus increasing the efficiency of the pollinators they depend upon.

Nectar Guides – Contrasting patterns of flower shades, tints, and tones further direct pollinators toward floral rewards such as nectar or pollen, much like the nighttime runway lights of an airport.

Fragrance – Minty or sweet, musky or ethereal, pungent or putrid, floral odors result from variations in chemical compounds. Fragrance can attract par-ticular pollinators over long distances, varying in concentration and intensity according to species, flower age, and site conditions.

Flower shape, size, and timing work together with color and odor to regulate pollinator visits. Abundant and diverse shapes and sizes, symmetrical or asymmetrical forms, arrangements on stems or branches in simple or complex groups, maturing at different rates: these variations can make it easier or harder for visitors to reach nectar and pollen.

For example, shallow, clustered flowers with landing platforms (such as sunflowers) have easily accessible floral rewards and attract many short-tongued pollinators such as sweat bees, beetles, and flies. In contrast, deep or tubular flowers without landing platforms often have hidden floral rewards accessible only by long-tongued or strong pollinators. A classic example of this latter flower type is bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana spp.), whose flowers remain closed and depend for pollination on bumble bees, which pry the petals apart and climb right inside.

Finally, many plants bloom according to a distinct seasonal rhythm – their phenology – which may be closely timed with the life cycle of specific pollinators. Others, meanwhile, bloom continuously or irregularly during the growing season, attracting many different types of pollinators. These rhythms can invite or exclude different pollinators depending upon the season or even the hour.
Risks and Rewards of Flower Foraging

Of course pollinators most often visit flowers for nutrient-rich food rewards: pollen and nectar. The availability and quality of these rewards vary de-pending on time of day, environmental factors, and an individual plant’s life cycle. And from the perspective of a bee, butterfly, or other pollinator, sever-al factors can make a particular flower useful, or not.


bee life cycle

The bee life cycle is illustrated using the alkali bee: (top left) egg atop a completed provision mass. Note the polished waterproof cell lining applied to the soil matrix; (top right) third instar larva feeding on remaining provision; (lower left) prepupa, the post-feeding larval resting stage; (lower right) two pupae (removed from their nest cells)

Floral rewards include pollen, nectar, oils, and/or resins, depending on the plant species.

Pollen, the most protein-rich of these rewards, is essential to bee reproduction. Once gathered, adult bees typically mix pollen with nectar and glandular secretions to form a nutritious “bee bread,” which forms the diet of larval bees. Pollen grains vary from 10 to 100 micrometers in size, have distinctive shapes, and commonly contain protein levels ranging from 2 to 60 percent (including 10 essential amino acids, as well as varying concentrations of carbo-hydrates, lipids, sterols, and other micronutrients). While some bees, such as the common European honey bee, are generalist pollinators whose diets are not restricted to particular pollen types, others are specialists of pollen from particular flowers, including various mining bees, cellophane bees, and resin bees.

Nectar is composed chiefly of carbohydrates and water, with low levels of amino acids, lipids, proteins, and various vitamins and minerals. Carbohy-drates, primarily the sugars sucrose, fructose, and glucose, can range in concentrations from 10 to 70 percent based on species and weather. It is this sug-ar-rich food source that fuels adult bees, butterflies, and a myriad of other flower visitors, such as bats and hummingbirds. Nectar secretion, even within the same species of plant, can vary depending on humidity, precipitation, time of day, temperature, wind, latitude, soil, and various other factors. In turn, the pollinators visiting those blossoms may encounter short-term booms and busts of nectar availability.

Oils and Resins are secreted by some flowers to attract bees. Specialized floral glands produce calorie-rich, medicinal oils that are regularly collected by a few bees (for example, Macropis spp. and Melitta spp.) and mixed with pollen and nectar for feeding and medicating larvae. Most likely, such flower resins first evolved to protect the plants from herbivores or disease. Eventually bees came to use them as a food source, and as a resin for constructing anti-microbial and wa-terproof nests.

Nonfloral Rewards
Nonfloral (or “extrafloral”) rewards include nectar, honeydew, fruits and saps.

Extrafloral Nectar is produced by many plants as sugary droplets from glands on leaves, stems, and other nonflowering plant parts. These nectar droplets attract beneficial predatory insects, such as ants, beetles, flies, mites, spiders, and wasps – all of which may attack plant pests. Among some plants, these extrafloral nectaries may supply even more nectar than the flowers do themselves. While less showy and aromatic than flowers, extrafloral nectaries are usually open and exposed for easy access by many types of beneficial insects (although not infrequently they are guarded by territorial ants!)

Honeydew is the sugary excrement of sap-feeding aphids, scale insects, whiteflies, and some butterfly caterpillars (mostly the blues, in the family Lycae-nidae). Like extrafloral nectar, it is eagerly collected by many beneficial insects, including ants, bees, and wasps. In some locations, in fact, aphid honey-dew is found in large enough quantities to produce small surplus honey crops. Honeydew is readily accessible but occasionally it, or the insects producing it, are guarded by ants. Think of ants tending aphids as though they were livestock, and you have a fairly accurate picture of this unique insect relation-ship.

Propolis, also known as bee glue, is a resinous sap mixture collected from plants by bees and harvested by humans. Particular plants, including conifers and poplars, exude these resins from buds or from injuries as a natural antimicrobial defense. Honey bees collect propolis to construct and defend hives, weatherproof small cracks and holes, smooth surfaces, dampen vibrations, and protect themselves from bacteria, fungi, mites, and other intruders. Hu-mans harvest and use honey bee propolis in cosmetics, soaps, medicines, and wood polishes or varnishes. Species of solitary mason bees also collect propo-lis to construct, partition, and seal nests.

Other Rewards
Leafcutter-and-Carpenter-BeesBeyond pollen and nectar, plants sustain pollination in several other ways, and the most familiar of these is as caterpillar food for butterflies. With only a few exceptions, the vast majority of butterfly and moth caterpillars are herbivores that feed exclusively on plant foliage. Depending on the species, those caterpillars may be generalists, which can feed on many types of plants, or specialists with a very narrow range of plants on which they can successfully feed.

The specialists often acquire defensive chemical compounds from the plants they feed upon (such as alkaloids, cardenolides, or glycosides) that make those insects unpalatable or toxic to predators. For example, milkweed butterfly caterpillars such as the monarch and queen feed exclusively on milkweed (As-clepias spp.) foliage, which contains toxic cardenolides that repel most vertebrate predators.

Other than food resources, plants also offer nesting, egg-laying, and overwintering resources for pollinators, such as hollow or pithy canes; stalks, stems, or twigs; leaves, petals, or plant fibers; and exfoliating or peeling bark. Plants with hollow or pithy branches, such as brambles (Rubus spp.), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), and sumac (Rhus spp.), are used extensively as nesting spaces for a wide range of wild solitary bees and wasps.

Nearly 30 percent of North American native bee species nest in hollow stems or abandoned beetle borer holes – including leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.), mason bees (Hoplitis spp.; Osmia spp.), small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), and masked bees (Hylaeus spp.).

Leafcutter Bees cut round sections of leaves or petals to wrap around their developing larvae and pollen stores, similar to a carefully wrapped origami package.

Wool Carder Bees (Anthidium spp.) comb plant fibers from the surface of fuzzy leaves and use them to create a wooly, felted plug that closes off the en-trance to their nests inside hollow stems.

Grass-Carrying Wasps (Isodontia spp.) gather grasses to plug up the entrance to their nests, building a grass barrier against other insects that would otherwise steal the food intended for their developing brood

Risk Management
Foraging for food can be risky for pollinators. In the process of visiting flowers, an individual insect may encounter predators, disease vectors, or bad weather. The farther an insect has to travel, and the more energy it has to exert in collecting food, the more risk it is exposed to. Plants that provide an abundance of quickly accessible, nutrient-packed pollen and nectar obviously provide the greatest reward, and allow insect visitors to get on with the business of mating and reproduction.

Diversity in Time and Space
Landscapes with a wide diversity of blooms more effectively sustain pollinators throughout the seasons than do landscapes dominated by only a small handful of flowering plants. At a landscape scale, the presence or absence of different types of blooming plants can result in a “feast of famine” situation for pollinators. Thus, expansive landscapes of weedy or invasive plants such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) or Himalayan blackberry (Rubus ar-meniacus) may provide an abundance of food for bees and other pollinators during their bloom period. Once the bloom is over, however, pollinators may suffer as those same invasive plants that temporarily sustained them now crowd out other types of wild plants that would otherwise have provided a variety of flower types throughout the entire growing season.

Creating Habitat
Here are some basic guidelines to consider when creating habitat for bees.

Provide large and contiguous habitat patches. Where possible, pollinator gardens, wildflower meadows, and habitat patches at least 5000 square feet in size offer a wonderfully productive landscape feature for sustaining honey bees, butterflies, and countless wild bees alike. To sustain wild pollinators for crop production on farms, the current research suggests that 10 to 30 percent of a farm should be maintained in natural habitat to support both wild bees for crop production and beneficial insects for natural pest control.
Within these areas, plants can be scattered about but clumps or groupings of similar plants (of at least 4 square feed [1 square meter]) seem to be espe-cially attractive to pollinators. This proximity reduces their foraging time so that they can spend more time mating, nesting, and raising future generations of pollinators.

Plant diversity also enhances pollinator populations, as previously mentioned. To attract a great diversity of wild bees, a landscape should feature at least 12 to 20 species of flowering plants and have at least three species of blooming plants at any given time.

Most important, whatever you plant, the habitat must be protected from insecticides. We recommend at least a 50-food-wide buffer (preferably 100-foot) between any pollinator habitat and areas such as cropland where insecticides are used.

Native plants should always be prioritized in creating pollinator habitat. While nonnative species can provide complementary benefits (such as cover crop plants for enhancing soil health, or edible landscape plants such as fruit trees), native plants typically offer the best adaptation to their environment and they have co-evolved with the many bees, butterflies, and other wildlife within their respective regions. Ideally, we encourage you to protect, collect, and sow seed from native plants that originate within or near your own community.
While native plants are ideal, introduced plants are often an irreversible presence in our humanized landscapes. Many of these species can offer copious floral rewards for pollinators. Select introduced plants with caution, however, and carefully avoid invasive or noxious plants to protect native plant com-munities and the wildlife that depend upon them.

The Role of Pollinators

Pollinator Friendly PracticesMost readers of this journal are well aware of the importance of pollinators to human life. Scientists estimate that between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants – more than 1200 crops and 180,000 species – need at least some help from these creatures. Another way to put it is that every third bite of food you take only exists because of pollinators. Their contribution to the global economy is worth some $217 billion dollars in agricultural productivity alone, not counting their services in cleaning the air, stabilizing soils, protecting us from more severe weather and supporting other wildlife.

But pollinators are endangered by assaults from toxic chemicals, disease and parasitism. Their defenses are down because so many have been taken from their natural habitat and shipped around the country to service industrial agriculture.

This issue of The Natural Farmer is an effort to help by first educating our members about their amazing work and lives, and then by suggesting ways to help – planting so that pollinators have food throughout the season, creating structures and materials which offer them attractive nesting sites, eliminating use of substances which harm these animals, and leaving them to enjoy at least some of the fruits of their labor.
We hope it inspires you to consider how pollinators function in your farm, garden or landscape and ways you might encourage them to thrive.

Threats to Bees – Honey Bees, Bumble Bees and Others

Varroa mite

photo by Scott Bauer
Varroa mite (the small tick-like insect in the center of the picture) is seen on a developing honey bee pupa (the large white mass which has been removed from the cell for better visibility). The dark blob to the upper left of the pupa is the bee’s developing eye. Varroa mites feed on adult workers and transmit viruses among bees this way, but they can only reproduce in the brood – in the prepupal and pupal stages of bee development.

by Kimberly Stoner
Associate Scientist
Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station

As I am an entomologist studying bees, people stop me all the time and ask, “How are the bees doing?” As is often the case for questions asked of a research scientist, this is a simple question with a complicated answer.

My first response is usually, “Which bees are you asking about? Honey bees? The 16 species of bumblebees we historically had in Connecticut? Or the 332 other species of bees in Connecticut?”

Let’s take these answers one at a time, with honeybees first, because those are the first bees that come to mind for most people.

Honeybees are not native to the US. Although there are some escaped colonies living on their own, the vast majority is managed by beekeepers. It is best to think of them like livestock, except that they have the unusual function of pollinating crop plants. Like other livestock, their numbers have changed over time due to market forces. In the US, the numbers of honeybee colonies declined from 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.3 million in 2008, and more recently they fluctuate between 2.5 and 3.2 million.

This long-term decline in honeybee colonies in the US has historically been closely related to low honey prices, but now in the US, payment for pollination services, rather than honey, is the major source of income for beekeepers. For keepers of migratory bees, the big market is in pollination of almonds in California. About 1.8 million hives are moved into over 1 million acres of almonds in late February for the bloom, renting for $180 – $200 each. Do the math. That’s about 2/3 of the hives in the country, traveling to California almonds from all over the US, being rented for a few weeks for about $342 million. Then these beekeepers spread out, with some coming all the way to New England to pollinate wild blueberries in Maine at a fee of $85 – $120 per hive for 3-4 weeks.

Honey bee on raspberry flowers

photo courtesy Kim Stoner
Honey bee on raspberry flowers.

The potential for spread of parasites and disease causing pathogens is obvious, and honeybees are subject to a number of devastating parasites and pathogens.

The greatest immediate threat to honeybees is from a species of mite, called the Varroa mite, which arrived in the US in the late 1980s. These mites not only cause direct harm to honey bees, but more importantly they have greatly increased the damage done by viruses to honey bees, creating a new mode of transmission by directly injecting viruses into the circulatory system of the bees. Honeybee researchers have identified between 16 and 24 different viruses in honeybees (depending on how they define “different” viruses). Among the most common is Deformed Wing Virus, which acts synergistically with Varroa mites – the virus makes honeybees more susceptible to the mites, which increases the harm done by the virus.

The most recent national honeybee survey shows that most beekeepers have low levels of Varroa mites through the spring and early summer, well below the economic threshold of 3 mites per 100 bees, but then the numbers of mites increase rapidly in late summer and fall. Based on a national survey, beekeepers who monitor and manage their Varroa mites using any of a variety of products formulated for that purpose, including some based on essential oils or organic acids, are less likely to lose their hives than those who do not use any formulated product, including those who use techniques like removal of drone comb, dusting with powdered sugar, or treating with unformulated natural materials like herbal extracts. Beekeepers who allow mites to build up risk not only their own hives, but also those of neighboring beekeepers, as mites hitch rides on workers raiding out failing colonies or drifting between colonies.

It could be worse. National surveys periodically scan bees across the country looking for another mite, Tropilaelaps, which is widespread and damaging to honey bees in Asia. This mite reproduces and develops more rapidly that the Varroa mites we already have and kills the honeybee brood (developing larvae) directly in addition to making adult bees smaller and weaker.

Beyond these direct threats to honey bees is a second tier of continuing stresses that also make life difficult for honey bees and beekeepers, including pesticides and lack of quality foraging habitat that also affect a range of other bees. Broad spectrum insecticides, those that kill a wide range of insect pests, are generally toxic to bees also. This includes some insecticides used by organic growers. In the most comprehensive extension publication on the subject, “How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides,” now available as an app, spinosad (the active ingredient in Entrust) is rated as moderately toxic to honey bees, and pyrethrin (active ingredient in Pyganic) is rated as highly toxic. These ratings are of acute toxicity – the dose that causes 50% of individual honeybee workers to die within a specified time period. This has been the standard method of measuring bee toxicity for decades, but it may not be the best measure of the effect of a pesticide on a honeybee colony. Honeybee colonies have from 10,000 to 40,000 workers, and they can lose a lot of individual workers without affecting the ability of the colony to survive and reproduce. The workers, the bees that forage for nectar and pollen and provide pollination services, don’t reproduce and are expendable.

In summary, there are a lot fewer honeybee colonies than there were sixty years ago, but the numbers have been stable in recent years. Beekeepers have to protect their honeybees from several threats: Varroa mites, viruses, other diseases, and pesticides, but they continue to keep bees – the larger beekeepers do it to make money from pollination, and the smaller beekeepers do it for lots of reasons – for honey, for local pollination, and because honey bees are fascinating to watch.

bumble bee on Helenium

photo courtesy Kim Stoner
Bumble bee on Helenium

What about other bees? Bumblebees are the most clearly threatened group of bees — here in the Northeast, across the country, and around the world. You may have heard that one species of bumblebee, the rusty patched bumble bee, has been declared a Federal endangered species. This bee was common in the Northeast before the late 1990s, but has not been found here in over 10 years. This is only one of a group of bumblebee species that suffered a rapid decline in range and abundance in the same period.

A number of scientists have suggested that this rapid decline was a result of the commercialization of bumblebees. In the late 1990s several European companies began selling bumble bees to greenhouse growers to pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and other greenhouse crops, bringing North American species over to Europe to develop methods of mass production, and then bringing the mass reared bees back to North America. The exact sequence of events is not entirely clear, but it appears that there is a connection between the increase in a European strain of a fungus attacking bumblebees and the crash of several sensitive bumble bees species in the same time period.

Another stress is from pesticides. Bumblebees and solitary bees are probably more sensitive to the effects of pesticides than honeybees. Bumblebees are social, like honey bees, but for only part of the year. In the middle of the summer, bumblebees live in social colonies – although with up to a few hundred bees in a colony, rather than thousands. So at that time of year the colony could possibly afford to lose some foragers to pesticides without affecting colony survival or reproduction. But at the end of the season – late summer to fall, depending on the species – the colony produces males and new queens, which mate with each other. Then the new queens forage for themselves, find protected places to pass the winter, emerge in the spring, hunt for a site to build a new nest, and then forage again for nectar and pollen to feed themselves and their developing larvae. During all that time the bumblebee queens are highly vulnerable to pesticides, as well as to many other hazards and stresses.

There are hundreds of other species of bees, in addition to honeybees and bumblebees, many of which are important pollinators. Dozens of species of spring ground nesting bees are important pollinators of apples, blueberries and other spring fruit trees, and other more generalist social sweat bees, along with honey bees and bumble bees, are pollinators of vegetable crops like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins. We know very little about whether the abundance and diversity of these bees are stable, declining, or even increasing, but we know about what these bees need to thrive: safe places to nest (for many of them, in the ground), abundant sources of pollen and nectar, and protection from pesticides.

For more information: Pollinator Information portal at The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station website: http://www.ct.gov/caes/cwp/view.asp?a=2826&q=578322&caesNav=|

Summary for Policymakers of the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production

A. Values of Pollinators and Pollination

1. Animal pollination plays a vital role as a regulating ecosystem service in nature. Globally, nearly 90 per cent of wild flowering plant species depend, at least in part, on the transfer of pollen by animals. These plants are critical for the continued functioning of ecosystems as they provide food, form habitats and provide other resources for a wide range of other species.

2. More than three quarters of the leading types of global food crops rely to some extent on animal pollination for yield and/or quality. Pollinator dependent crops contribute to 35 per cent of global crop production volume.

3. Given that pollinator-dependent crops rely on animal pollination to varying degrees, it is estimated that 5-8 per cent of current global crop production, with an annual market value of $235 billion – $577 billion worldwide, is directly attributable to animal pollination.

4. The importance of animal pollination varies substantially among crops, and therefore among regional crop economies. Many of the world’s most important cash crops benefit from animal pollination in terms of yield and/or quality and are leading export products in developing countries (e.g., coffee and cocoa) and developed countries (e.g., almonds), providing employment and income for millions of people.

5. Pollinator-dependent food products are important contributors to healthy human diets and nutrition. Pollinator-dependent species encompass many fruit, vegetable, seed, nut and oil crops, which supply major proportions of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals in the human diet.

6. The vast majority of pollinator species are wild, including more than 20,000 species of bees, some species of flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, thrips, birds, bats and other vertebrates. A few species of bees are widely managed, including the western honey bee, the eastern honey bee, some bumble bees, some stingless bees and a few solitary bees. Beekeeping provides an important source of income for many rural livelihoods. The western honey bee is the most widespread managed pollinator in the world, and globally there are about 81 million hives producing an estimated 1.6 million tons of honey annually.

7. Both wild and managed pollinators have globally significant roles in crop pollination, although their relative contributions differ according to crop and location. Crop yield and/or quality depend on both the abundance and diversity of pollinators. A diverse community of pollinators generally provides more effective and stable crop pollination than any single species. Pollinator diversity contributes to crop pollination even when managed species (e.g., honey bees) are present in high abundance. The contribution of wild pollinators to crop production is undervalued.

8. Pollinators are a source of multiple benefits to people, beyond food provisioning, contributing directly to medicines, biofuels (e.g. canola and palm oil), fibers (e.g., cotton and linen) construction materials (timbers), musical instruments, arts and crafts, recreational activities and as sources of inspiration for art, music, literature, religion, traditions, technology and education. Pollinators serve as important spiritual symbols in many cultures. Sacred passages about bees in all the worlds’ major religions highlight their significance to human societies over millennia.

9. A good quality of life for many people relies on ongoing roles of pollinators in globally significant heritage, as symbols of identity, as aesthetically significant landscapes and animals, in social relations, for education and recreation and in governance interactions. Pollinators and pollination are critical to the implementation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage; the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage; and the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems Initiative.

B. Status and Trends in Pollinators and Pollination

10. Wild pollinators have declined in occurrence and diversity (and abundance for certain species) at local and regional scales in Northwest Europe and North America. Although a lack of wild pollinator data (species identity, distribution and abundance) for Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania preclude any general statement on their regional status, local declines have been recorded. Long-term international or national monitoring of both pollinators and pollination is urgently required to provide information on status and trends for most species and most parts of the world.

11. The number of managed western honey bee hives has increased globally over the last five decades, even though declines have been recorded in some European countries and North America over the same period. Seasonal colony loss of western honey bees has in recent years been high at least in some parts of the temperate Northern Hemisphere and in South Africa. Beekeepers can under some conditions, with associated economic costs, make up such losses through the splitting of managed colonies.

12. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessments indicate that 16.5 per cent of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction (increasing to 30 per cent for island species). There are no global Red List assessments specifically for insect pollinators. However, regional and national assessments indicate high levels of threat for some bees and butterflies. In Europe, 9 per cent of bee and butterfly species are threatened and populations are declining for 37 per cent of bees and 31 per cent of butterflies (excluding data deficient species, which includes 57 per cent of bees). Where national Red List assessments are available, they show that often more than 40 per cent of bee species may be threatened.

13. The volume of production of pollinator dependent crops has increased by 300 per cent over the last five decades, making livelihoods increasingly dependent on the provision of pollination. However, overall these crops have experienced lower growth and lower stability of yield than pollinator-independent crops. Yield per hectare of pollinator-dependent crops has increased less, and varies more year to year, than yield per hectare of pollinator-independent crops. While the drivers of this trend are not clear, studies of several crops at local scales show that production declines when pollinators decline.

C. Drivers of Change, Risks and Opportunities, and Policy and Management Options

14. The abundance, diversity and health of pollinators and the provision of pollination are threatened by direct drivers that generate risks to societies and ecosystems. Threats include land-use change, intensive agricultural management and pesticide use, environmental pollution, invasive alien species, pathogens and climate change. Explicitly linking pollinator declines to individual or combinations of direct drivers is limited by data availability or complexity, yet a wealth of individual case studies worldwide suggests that these direct drivers often affect pollinators negatively.

15. Strategic responses to the risks and opportunities associated with pollinators and pollination range in ambition and timescale from immediate, relatively straightforward, responses that reduce or avoid risks to relatively large-scale and long-term responses that aim to transform agriculture or society’s relationship with nature. There are seven broad strategies, linked to actions, for responding to risks and opportunities (table SPM. 1), including a range of solutions that draw on indigenous and local knowledge. These strategies can be adopted in parallel and would be expected to reduce risks associated with pollinator decline in any region of the world, regardless of the extent of available knowledge about the status of pollinators or the effectiveness of interventions.

16. A number of features of current intensive agricultural practices threaten pollinators and pollination. Moving towards more sustainable agriculture and reversing the simplification of agricultural landscapes offer key strategic responses to risks associated with pollinator decline. Three complementary approaches to maintaining healthy pollinator communities and productive agriculture are: (a) ecological intensification (i.e., managing nature’s ecological functions to improve agricultural production and livelihoods while minimizing environmental damage); (b) strengthening existing diversified farming systems (including forest gardens, home gardens, agroforestry and mixed cropping and livestock systems) to foster pollinators and pollination through practices validated by science or indigenous and local knowledge (e.g., crop rotation); and (c) investing in ecological infrastructure by protecting, restoring and connecting patches of natural and seminatural habitats throughout productive agricultural landscapes. These strategies can concurrently mitigate the impacts of land-use change, land management intensity, pesticide use and climate change on pollinators.

17. Practices based on indigenous and local knowledge can be a source of solutions to current challenges, in co-production with science, by supporting an abundance and diversity of pollinators. Practices include diverse farming systems; favoring heterogeneity in landscapes and gardens; kinship relationships that protect many specific pollinators; using seasonal indicators (e.g., flowering) to trigger actions (e.g., planting); distinguishing a wide range of pollinators; and tending to nest trees and floral and other pollinator resources. Knowledge co-production has led to improvements in hive design, new understanding of parasite impacts and the identification of stingless bees new to science.

18. The risk to pollinators from pesticides arises through a combination of toxicity and the level of exposure, which varies geographically with the compounds used and the scale of land management and habitat in the landscape. Pesticides, particularly insecticides, have been demonstrated to have a broad range of lethal and sublethal effects on pollinators under controlled experimental conditions. The few available field studies assessing effects of field-realistic exposure provide conflicting evidence of effects based on species studied and pesticide usage. It is currently unresolved how sublethal effects of pesticide exposure recorded for individual insects affect colonies and populations of managed bees and wild pollinators, especially over the longer term. Recent research focusing on neonicotinoid insecticides shows evidence of lethal and sublethal effects on bees and some evidence of impacts on the pollination they provide. There is evidence from a recent study that shows impacts of neonicotinoids on wild pollinator survival and reproduction at actual field exposure. Evidence, from this and other studies, of effects on managed honey bee colonies is conflicting.

19. Exposure of pollinators to pesticides can be decreased by reducing the use of pesticides, seeking alternative forms of pest control and adopting a range of specific application practices, including technologies to reduce pesticide drift. Actions to reduce pesticide use include promoting Integrated Pest Management, supported by educating farmers, organic farming and policies to reduce overall use. Risk assessment can be an effective tool for defining pollinator-safe uses of pesticides, which should consider different levels of risk among wild and managed pollinator species according to their biology. Subsequent use regulations (including labeling) are important steps towards avoiding the misuse of specific pesticides. The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management of the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization of the United Nations provides a set of voluntary actions for Government and industry to reduce risks for human health and environment.

20. Most agricultural genetically modified organisms (GMOs) carry traits for herbicide tolerance (HT) or insect resistance (IR). Reduced weed populations are likely to accompany most herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops, diminishing food resources for pollinators. The actual consequences for the abundance and diversity of pollinators foraging in herbicide tolerant (HT)-crop fields is unknown. Insect resistant (IR) crops can result in the reduction of insecticide use, which varies regionally according to the prevalence of pests, the emergence of secondary outbreaks of non-target pests or primary pest resistance. If sustained, the reduction in insecticide use could reduce pressure on non-target insects. How insect-resistant (IR) crop use and reduced pesticide use affect pollinator abundance and diversity is unknown. Risk assessments required for the approval of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops in most countries do not adequately address the direct sublethal effects of insect-resistant (IR) crops or the indirect effects of herbicide-tolerant (HT) and insect-resistant (IR) crops, partly because of a lack of data.

21. Bees suffer from a broad range of parasites, including Varroa mites in western and eastern honey bees. Emerging and re-emerging diseases are a significant threat to the health of honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees, especially when they are managed commercially. Greater emphasis on hygiene and the control of pathogens would help reduce the spread of disease across the entire community of pollinators, managed and wild. Mass breeding and large-scale transport of managed pollinators can pose risks for the transmission of pathogens and parasites and increase the likelihood of selection for more virulent pathogens, alien species invasions and regional extinctions of native pollinator species. The risk of unintended harm to wild and managed pollinators could be decreased by better regulation of their trade and use.

22. The ranges, abundances and seasonal activities of some wild pollinator species (e.g., bumble bees and butterflies) have changed in response to observed climate change over recent decades. Generally, the impacts of ongoing climate change on pollinators and pollination services to agriculture may not be fully apparent for several decades, owing to a delayed response in ecological systems. Adaptive responses to climate change include increasing crop diversity and regional farm diversity and targeted habitat conservation, management or restoration. The effectiveness of adaptation efforts at securing pollination under climate change is untested.

23. Many actions to support wild and managed pollinators and pollination could be implemented more effectively with improved governance. For example, broad-scale government policy may be too homogenous and not allow for local variation in practices; administration can be fragmented into different levels; and goals can be contradictory between sectors. Coordinated, collaborative action and knowledge sharing that builds links across sectors (e.g., agriculture and nature conservation), across jurisdictions (e.g., private, Government, not-for-profit), and among levels (e.g., local, national, global) can overcome these challenges and lead to long-term changes that benefit pollinators. Establishing effective governance requires habits, motivations and social norms to change over the long term. However, the possibility that contradictions between policy sectors may remain even after coordination efforts have been undertaken should be acknowledged and should be a point of attention in future studies.

Warm Colors Apiary: Breeding Nature Back into the Colonies

Dan Conlon

photo by Jack Kittredge
Dan shows a ‘skep’ or basket-like cone, a design which served beekeepers for hundreds of years until the modern Langstroth hive was designed.
Note the small bee entrance in the third layer from the bottom.

The Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, along the Connecticut River, contains the state’s best and most productive soils. It was here, in South Deerfield, that Dan and Bonita Conlon in 2000 founded Warm Colors Apiary on 80 acres of low-lying woodland, fields, and wetlands. The site they chose was on the edge of the Valley, just before the land climbs more than 400 feet to the town of Conway.

“We located here out of dumb luck,” admits Dan. “This little spot is sheltered and is often 10 degrees warmer in the winter than it is up the hill a few miles in Conway. We have early bloom of skunk cabbage and many other early spring flowers, yet we see the bees bringing in pollen in December sometimes. We have things that bloom in sequence the entire summer into fall until the first hard frost hits. That gives the bees a natural stimulus plus a healthy variety of diet.”

Dan has kept bees since he was 14, when he worked for a neighboring Ohio farmer who had a couple of dozen hives. Conlon says he took a liking to the bees because the ‘seemed kind of cool’. No one else in the farmer’s family liked managing them so he had Dan over on Sundays to help him.

“We’d hang out with his buddies and find bee trees,” Conlon recalls. “That’s when I had my first sip of whiskey! One thing he taught me was: ‘When your bees are making honey, leave them alone!’ Get them in condition and then leave them alone from mid-May to June if you want to get honey. If you interrupt them you don’t get honey.”

Like many beekeepers, however, Dan has to rely on more than honey sales to make a living. He has developed three income-producing enterprises related to his bee business: pollination services, honey production, and raising queens. In the process Conlon has become an expert on many aspects of honeybee evolution.

“Honeybees originated in Africa,” he explains, “like a lot of living creatures. They split out into three arms. One went the way of Asia, one went to Europe, and the last one stayed in Africa. Each arm adapted to the climate they found, forming a lot of subspecies. It is similar to what happened to humans.”

Honeybees, as opposed to other pollinating bees, are social and maintain a hive year round. They need enough food to stay active in the winter and keep the hive alive by generating heat. The African bees have developed about 25 subspecies that have learned to move about, following the seasonal rains to find flowering plants.

Honeybees did not reach Australia and the Americas, however, until brought by European colonists. They brought, of course, the European strain.

“Thus the honeybee is an introduced species here,” Dan points out. “We know from ship manifests that they were brought in for the Jamestown colony. There is some historical information that the Spaniards introduced them to Florida, as well. There was no word in any of the Native American languages for honey because it was not something found in this continent until the Europeans brought in honeybees.

set of drilled wood blocks

photo by Jack Kittredge
This is a set of drilled wood blocks that is banded together to form a set of mason bee nests. You can do the same thing more cheaply with a clump of big straws and rubber bands. Seal one end with mud, place it in a sheltered spot with the holes slanted slightly down to let water drain away, and the bees will move in.

“There were certainly a lot of native pollinators,” he continues. “There were bumblebees and I’ve heard the estimate that there were something like seven or eight hundred species of native bees in Massachusetts. But these were not honeybees. They were solitary bees.”

When the Europeans came to New England they brought their honeybees with them. John Winthrop, governor of the Bay State colony, was one of the first to bring them – to pollinate the apples he planted.

“If you look at the census of households here in the late 1700s,” Dan says, “it was common for about every fifth household to have their own bees. It was usually the women who managed them, to supply a sweetener for cooking. There was only maple syrup and honey back then, no cane sugar yet.”

According to Conlon, many of the introduced bees soon found homes in the wild. When bees make a hive in nature they will use a hollow tree or some other shelter and just attach the comb to the walls and ceiling. The colonists helped this process along with their early practices. They would burn off large tracts of land to open it up for agriculture, but it turns out gum trees withstood the heat well. The trees would die, but their trunks would still remain standing and become hollowed out. That made a perfect home for the bees, where swarms would settle, form a colony, and build up stores of honey.

When people started keeping bees, however, they needed a way to capture a swarm and bring it to a convenient place for them to manage.

“Here is a system that was common until about the 1800s,” he says, bringing out an onion-shaped device formed like a basket. “It is called a ‘skep’. In Scandinavian languages that means a cone. You would take two sticks, make a cross, and bend them slightly and insert them up into the top of the skep. The tension would hold them in. If you have a swarm of bees you just invert the skep under the swarm, knock them into it, turn it upright on a flat surface, and the bees would start building comb hanging from those two sticks.

“They would build comb all the way to the bottom,” he continues, “and when you pick it up the whole thing would be full of honeycomb. When you wanted to harvest the honey, since the bees store honey on the outside of the brood nest, you just pull the comb out and squeeze it out between cloths. Of course the bees had to rebuild all of that comb you just tore out, so that would slow them down. But it was the time-honored method, and there were all kinds of shapes.”

Top Bar is another old hive system that was replaced back in the 1800s by modern hives, Dan says. The top bar hives are what you would use in poor countries. They don’t have a frame that supports the wax, but top bar hives require less wood or wood-working skills. They involve ‘constructive comb’ beekeeping and you have to destroy the comb to get the honey. They were not popular even back then because you get stung a lot more with it and the bees have to constantly rebuild the comb.

“There is a lot being said now about the top bar hives,” Conlon observes, “that I think is not true. That you don’t get mites with them, for instance, — there is no evidence for that.

“We experimented with those,” he continues. “I realized you can’t transport them. When we go out to do pollination there is no practical way those will work. You can’t move them without damaging them. What bees do in the winter in the Northeast is move up, into their honey. When you put the long bar in, they either move left or right to get the honey. But if they exhaust that side, they may not think to move to the other side and just go up. So a lot of people have modified them to put a standard super on top. I wonder why don’t they just start with a regular hive?”

With the invention of the removable frame, Dan points out, you can take the honey out and the comb is still good and the bees will fill it back up again. You are saving a lot of resources, plus it allows you to inspect the comb.

Lorenzo Langstroth was the guy from Greenfield who designed the modern hive. He was the minister of the Second Congregational Church, right on the Common. He discovered important beekeeping principles in the 1830s and wrote the very first book on managing bees, “The Hive and the Honeybee”, in 1853. It is still in print.

Langstroth discovered what we call the ‘bee space’. That is the space, about a quarter to three-eighths of an inch wide, which is narrow enough that bees won’t gum it up with propolis and wax. He figured out that if he made a hive that allowed these gaps when you pushed the frames together, the bees would go through them and wouldn’t gum them up. They use the space as passages. When you want to take a frame out you can just insert your tool and pry it loose. All equipment is now designed around that ‘bee space’ standard.

“We have a guy in Colrain who makes these frames for us,” Dan remarks, holding one. “He was trying to find a way to make some money and I said: ‘You know, what you ought to do is make bee equipment.’ He’s been doing that now for a couple years and he’s getting pretty good. He uses local lumber and we are buying more from him as he gets better at it. It took him a while to figure out the bee space.”

When one thinks of pollinators, Conlon explains, one thinks of honeybees. But there are many, many other insects which pollinate plants. They even make substances similar to honey to feed their young. But only the honeybee is fully social, which means they live and reproduce year round.

Bumblebees are semi-social. Their queens mate in the fall, but then live for the winter in the ground under leaf litter in a state of diapause or hibernation. They have a natural antifreeze in their bodies which prevents them from freezing and will come out of the ground in April or so as mated queens. First they find a source of food, sugar, then they find a convenient place to start a nest. They often get into a birdhouse before the birds. They make the first cells, the comb, and lay eggs in it for a few workers. They will keep them warm and hatch them out until those workers can take up the duties of foraging for nectar and pollen, and the queen will become increasingly focused on laying more eggs.

A large bumblebee nest would be 300 bees. That queen survives just one year. But she will eventually lay a bunch of eggs for queens, 20 or 30, and those queens will go out and mate and then return to the nest without conflict with each other until they hibernate. The rest of the hive dies. That is the bumblebee cycle. Do they produce honey? Yes they do. But they will just fill up the cells they are tending, not store for the future because they are not going to survive the winter.

Mason bees live in community, but not in a hive. They live in individual holes, usually in wood. Each one of these holes will become home to one mason bee. They lay an egg in the bottom of it, then get some mud and make a cell wall and fill it with a nutritional feed for the larva, which hatches out of the egg and feeds on it. The bees then put another wall up, lay another egg, etc. The bees develop in there for a season living in communities, but they aren’t working together. The males are all around the outside, and they hatch first. Then they all hang around and wait for the females to hatch, to mate with them.

“You don’t really need wooden holes like these,” explains Dan, showing me a lovely set of wooden holes for the bees, “though they look nice. You can go to a Burger King and get a clump of their big straws with holes this size. Put a rubber band around them, take one end of the clump and stick it in mud, so it’s sealed. You can stick it in some place where it is protected from the rain and tilt it to drain water. The mason bees will move in.

“I encourage small farms to get more into native pollinators like Mason bees,” he continues. “If you are doing a lot of berries and small fruits, Mason bees are extraordinarily good at pollinating them. They have an incubation period around here that puts them into a cocoon stage in June and that lasts until the following Spring! So they don’t last all summer. You wouldn’t necessarily want them for pollination if you were doing crops all summer. But they hatch out in April or May and are very active for several months, so they are great for things that bloom in May and June. They are ideal for organic growers, who don’t spray, because they have to be near the crop – within 300 yards. They don’t go far. But they will out-pollinate any other bee, especially for fruit.”

Wasps are carnivorous and eat other insects. Yellow jackets, for instance, will eat fly maggots. You may not like yellow jackets, Conlon says, but if you have them you probably don’t have a fly problem.

Wasps and hornets are hunters, like wolves. They are aggressive. When you are chased by a hornet’s nest, you know it is not a bunch of honeybees! Honeybees, however, are the vegetarians of the stinging insect world. They are more like deer, grazing animals who defend their nest.

Honeybees have a year-round cycle, not a seasonal one. In the fall the queens decrease how much egg laying they do and during the coldest weather they cease altogether for 2 to 3 months. In mid to late February the queens start laying eggs again. It takes 21 days for an egg to develop into a bee. But the workers only live about 6 weeks, on average. The queens can live for years, of course, if they are cared for properly. But there is a constant need to replace elderly workers to keep the hive going.

Dan and Bonita

photo courtesy Warm Colors Apiary
Dan and Bonita Conlon, owners of Warm Colors Apiary. Note their hives behind them and Dan’s hood which he wears when opening hives and working with the bees.

“Pollination is a bigger industry than honey now,” Dan observes. “Part of that is because of California – the price of pollination is now $175 per hive. You can run a hive two or three times with different crops in California, so these guys with a thousand hives or more are doing all right. There is one guy I know pretty well who runs 100,000 hives. If he can get $500 a year in pollination service fees for each of them, think how much money that is!

“But he’s no longer a real beekeeper,” Conlon continues. “He keeps boxes. He puts them on forklifts and trucks, takes them somewhere, and takes them off again. He was using 300 semi trucks. He doesn’t know what the inside of one of his hives looks like. That was the first time I realized the vulnerability of the big guys. His bees are dying. He was asking me about mites – what we are doing? He has a whole research staff, but he said he didn’t think they were doing that good of a job and my bees aren’t dying. So he wanted my advice.”

Dan figures it is those big commercial guys who are bringing the problem to the rest of beekeepers. He has a friend in New York State who keeps bees and does pretty well. But that friend finds that whenever his bees get near one of the commercial pollinator’s, they get all kinds of problems – mites, disease. The problems from all over the country are collected on those trucks.

“A lot of these big guys winter in the South, Florida,” he relates. “Their bees start up early in February when they start feeding them heavily, corn syrup, to stimulate brood production. Then they put them on trucks for California and the almond groves. Almonds flower in late February and require 100% honeybee pollination. No bees, no almonds. Native pollinators won’t work for almonds. It’s estimated that 40% of all the commercial bees in the country are hired for almond pollination. Their almond acreage is bigger than the entire state of Massachusetts. But the growers use chemicals to kill everything else on the ground. It’s a monocrop.

“We were out there in February,” Conlon continues, “and I have to tell you, it’s a wasteland. From a farmers point of view you would look at this and say it is terrible. When they bring the bees out there are literally hundreds of thousands of bees in one place. They have a tanker truck that squirts a little corn syrup in each hive to keep them going. They are sitting in the desert, waiting for the almonds to bloom. You understand why they have to bring the bees in. Native pollinators couldn’t survive. There are no wild plants, no water. It’s a desert.”

Warm Colors Apiary pollination services are quite a bit different from the large commercial ones. For starters, Dan got into the business a little defensively.

“I used to send bees out to do cranberries,” Conlon recalls, “and they came back with all kinds of diseases. Migratory guys come in from all over the country, so you’re mixing bees from everywhere for an extended period of time. They all get these exotic diseases, go all around the country, come to the northeast for berries, and then go south. But I couldn’t just not pollinate. A lot of local guys were looking for pollination – for apples and blueberries, for instance – but if nobody local would do it I figured they would bring in commercial guys with all that disease. So we do it now in self-defense.”

A lot of growers now hire Warm Colors bees as a buffer, a protection in case the native ones don’t work out for some reason. The native bee population tends to fluctuate dramatically from Spring to Spring, because of the severity or mildness of the winter, so it cannot always be counted upon.

There was a time when a lot of farmers used to keep their own beehives, Dan recalls, but they decided it was just easier to hire someone to bring a few hives when they needed them. At the same time farmers are busy, beekeepers are busy. So he sets out a couple hundred hives early for apples and blueberries, then we’ll do summer pollination of squash, cucumbers, sugar pumpkins, and vine crops.

Adult bees can pretty much live on honey alone. But pollen is used to make brood feed for developing larvae, so the more brood, the more pollen is needed. The worker bees will actively step up their pollen collection if they have a lot of brood to feed.

Of course if you want to maximize the pollination your bees do, you want them focused on gathering pollen. Thus you put a lot of brood in the hives you use for pollination, and you don’t use your largest hives either, since those will tend to have a lot of bees and the workers will cut back on making brood. Thus there is a fine line in preparing your hives for pollination work. The standard for pollinating hives is 8 frames of bees and brood in a 10 frame box. You also want to make sure there is a good egg-laying queen there.

As far as crop plants go, apples are easy to pollinate with bees, pears not so much. The bees don’t really like pear nectar. Conlon waits until the pear blossoms are half open, brings the bees in at night, and gets one good day of pollination before the bees find something they like better.

Cucumbers are easy plants for honeybees. They love the flowers. You will get a 40 to 60 percent increase in yield per acre just by having one bee hive nearby. You also get the nice shape and color with better pollination. It only takes 48 hours for cukes to size up after pollination.

Honeybees can also pollinate squash, but squash bees are better. The flowers close early because of the heat, so honeybees have trouble pollinating them all. Squash bees get up early, however, when the squash flowers are open. Low till farming has also really helped squash bees. They live in the ground and deep tillage can destroy their nests.

As a business, Warm Colors survives on honey production. The apiary produces about 20,000 pounds a year. They don’t use chemicals to control mites or disease, and use honey, not syrup, when the bees need extra energy.

“Those practices give us a bit of a marketing edge,” says Dan. “People say our honeys taste so much better, how honey is supposed to taste: buckwheat has a strong taste, wildflower is mild. You might want buckwheat on pancakes, wildflower for making mead. Goldenrod used to be the distinct New England honey and has a taste that many people still recognize. This year we are focusing more on comb honey. It is a specialty product for which there is more and more interest.”

But probably the most challenging task Dan takes on is raising healthy queens. That generally happens in the spring, as you inspect the hives, clean them out, and remove dead bees.

“Back when I got started in keeping bees,” Conlon recalls, “everybody raised their own queens. On the simplest level you just take a frame full of eggs and put it in a queenless situation and the bees will make a queen for you. I remember bringing queens to county meetings in matchboxes in my shirt pocket. You would swap with some guy from another part of the state – just trade queens to mix the genetics up. It would be like trading seeds or fruit tree scions. If you wanted to get into beekeeping and didn’t have a queen, you wouldn’t order one from a guy like me. You would go to a meeting and tell somebody you are in the market for a swarm. That’s how you got started.

“Now,” he continues, “very few people in a state like Massachusetts raise queens, only certain breeders like us. We use a special tool and remove a day old larva, put it into a special cell, and move it into a queenless colony. The workers know right away that the hive is queenless, so they will produce a new queen for you. They can take any fertilized egg and feed it a food with hormones they produce from their own bodies to give it the sexual differentiation to make a queen. Once fed, the brain of the larva sends the signals down to grow the ovaries and the rest of the queen’s body.

“It works the same with the males,” he concludes. “Workers can take a fertilized egg and produce drones if they are needed. They construct larger cells for drones, smaller for workers. You can watch the queen stick her antennae in and measure the cell before laying the egg.”

An important change in the business of breeding honeybees is that genetics have become much more important. With the mites and other assaults bees have suffered in the last 20 years, their numbers have declined substantially and there are far fewer breeding lines now.

“The way we used to breed,” Conlon relates, “was your backyard queen would go off and breed with all these drones from wild colonies that were being naturally selected. So you got a bump in hybrid vigor. The resulting bees were better bees than you started with. Then we lost all those native bees because of the mites. Now we’re in a genetic bottleneck. There are only 300 breeding lines among honeybees in this country from coast to coast right now. That’s from a high of maybe 10,000 in the 1970s. That is largely from the mites killing all the wild colonies.”

Many beekeepers, to save their hives, were forced to use pesticides to control the mites. But bees that became dependent on chemicals to survive were not good prospects for healthy parents. It’s the same issue as you have with conventional turkeys versus heritage birds. You have commercial bee queens being sold that are from colonies being propped up constantly by chemicals. What was required was a source of genetic stock that had developed methods to control the mites naturally.

It turns out that when Imperial Russia put in the almost 6000 mile long Trans Siberian railroad over a hundred years ago, European agriculture moved out there with the railroad. European bees went along to pollinate the European crops, and they encountered mites in Siberia. What ensued was a typical battle in nature between a parasite and a host. (See Epidemiology 101 from the Summer 2016 issue of this paper, or go to https://thenaturalfarmer.org/article/epidemiology-101/). During the last 120 years the surviving Russian honeybees developed behaviors to resist the mites, primarily grooming each other to bite and destroy the pests, but also producing mite-inhibiting pheromones in the comb, so that they fell below the threshold of a serious problem.

Bee scientists at the USDA knew this history and the director of the Baton Rouge Bee Lab decided to start a program to try to use Russian bees to breed similar resistance into the American honeybee and identified at least 8 different subspecies to begin with.

Mites are a problem because the reproductively mature mites live on the bees and suck their blood, weakening them. When it is time for a honeybee to spin a cocoon and go from the larval stage to the pupal stage, the worker bees cap that cell. Right before they cap it, however, mites seem to be able to sense this development (through pheromones, we think) and go in and lay eggs in the cell. When the mites hatch they start feeding on the developing pupa. (They’re nasty little buggers!)

If that mite reproductive stage could be interrupted, scientists reasoned, the honeybees might have a chance to marshal their own defenses. One strategy that seemed likely to be able to help the honeybees gain an advantage on the mites was to split a hive so that half has no queen, or to remove or cage up a queen. The workers will raise a new queen, but it will take 16 days to do that, plus another 4 to 8 days for her to mate and lay eggs. This creates a period of time when there is no brood produced by a laying queen for a couple of weeks. If you keep the mites from having brood to infest, the Russian bees will go around and groom each other and remove reproductive mites to the level that they are below the economic threshold for having a mite problem. They are not gone, but are managed by the bees.

The first 10 years of the USDA program were involved in just counting mites in hives to see which of about 640 different genetic lines of Russian bee stock had the best ability to control them. Researchers finally boiled it down to 18 of the best lines, which they then released to the private sector. That is when Dan and other beekeepers formed the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association.

“We’re independent of the lab,” Conlon points out, “and are the owners – as the association – of the lines. There are about 20 of us breeders around the country doing this. Each of us is assigned 2 genetic lines, with redundancy built in so no one person controls any line. Other breeders, who have other genetic lines, send me queens that become my drone sources. Then I mate my queens with those drones in a mating area where there aren’t other honeybees, to make sure they keep the genetics we want. This is all analyzed with the lab people. We have to send in samples of our brood every year to make sure that the genetic lines we want are still there. We go through the data each year to pick the best release line for the next year, which goes out to the public as queens.

“Of course,” he continues, “we have to do all this for free, which means you have a lot of hives that aren’t making money. If you are lucky you might sell a few queens, but you generally have to support this with the rest of your business. We have to protect these genetics.

“Doing this work,” concludes Dan, currently the president of the breeding association, “is the high mark of my career. If we can go 5 more years with this program, we will have bees we can say will not need any treatment. Of course, with this new administration, we can’t be sure the USDA funding will continue.”

Conlon speaks a good deal about bees and how central they are to agriculture and our future. He says people always want to know what they can do to help the bees.

“One thing,” he says, “is to plant flowering plants. Perennials are better, natives are best if you want native bees. Don’t use pesticides, of course. The other thing is leave part of your property wild. If you clean everything up you have gotten rid of the habitat many bees like. Farmers always used to have hedgerows for wild species. Now the thing is to clean it all up — with herbicides. But there goes the wild habitat for beneficials. If you drive through the heartland now, it’s a wasteland. There are no weeds, no wild habitat. Seventy percent of bees live in dead wood, for instances. Leave dead trees and you will attract more native bees. I recommend the 10% rule. No matter how big your property, leave 10% unmanicured. If everybody in the neighborhood is doing it, that adds up to a lot of habitat!”

As strong as is his concern for the loss of bee habitat, Dan is even more passionate about bee nutrition.

Bee Hive

photo courtesy Warm Colors Apiary
The Warm Colors home bee yard has plenty of bees going in and out. Note all the supers which have been added for honey!

“Our bees are being fed corn syrup,” he frowns. “That started in the 1970s. Prior to that, everybody just left honey in the hives. It was just honey and pollen, from the wild, wherever you lived. Corn syrup became a cheap feed. If you are a migratory pollinator, you want to have a lot of bees and so you have bees raised on corn syrup.

“Here is what we have learned about feeding honeybees only corn syrup,” he continues. “Honeybees, when they first emerge from the cell, eat natural pollen and nectar. There are enzymes within those things that trigger glands in their bodies to cause the production of P450 enzymes. We have them in our bodies, too. What they allow is for you to do is detoxify your system and excrete bad things. It’s a function of our liver. It’s the reason you can drink coffee. You don’t realize it but caffeine is actually a toxin for humans. But because we have these P450s, it’s a stimulant.

“With honeybees,” he concludes, “the Russian bees could handle 70% more neonicotinoids than the other races. This is because we feed honey and pollen and that produces high levels of P450, which gives them a huge advantage for absorbing and secreting toxins. If the bees don’t get those enzymes in the first few days of life, it never happens. I think we are in a very serious place not just with bees but with all our food supply. People think they deserve cheap food, but the nutrition has been going down and down. Organic is the most reliable source of food that hasn’t been cheapened. When I grew up my mother didn’t have access to lots of processed foods. She went out and bought fresh stuff. So we probably had better nutrition right from the start. We grew up in Ohio near farms. My mother likes vegetables and fresh stuff. We had some frozen vegetables too, but no TV dinners or McDonalds! Mom liked to cook so when we had dinners and desserts, they were hers. I feel I was fortunate growing up in that kind of household.”

The one message that comes through everything Conlon says is that understanding nature is crucial to our success.

“Most of us don’t study insects like we should,” he insists. “They have predictable behavior, like anything else. But our entire understanding of insects has been to kill them. People just don’t like insects, but the vast majority of them are good for us and do things we need.

“Even if you are a good beekeeper today,” he continues, “you have to be on top of it or you are going to lose your bees. I tell people not to come into this and figure you are going to get it right in the first year or two years. It is hard. The bees die and you don’t know why.

“But we can minimize problems with growers if we talk to each other,” Dan concludes. “There are beekeepers who want to just ban all pesticides. Well, what does that do with conventional agriculture? It generates a lot of resentment. We need to sit down with the applicators and talk over our needs. Farmers need bees around them, but understand that there are things farmers do which can be minimized so they don’t harm the bees. Here in the valley, these farmers get it. Most of them have all cut back. They don’t like to use them in the first place — they cost a lot of money. Most of us don’t study insects like we should. They have predictable behavior just like anything else. But our entire understanding of insects has been to just kill them.

Of Bats, Bordermen, and the Spirit of Tequila

Bee woodcutThe sun sets over the ridges of Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains.  After fifteen years of slow, dry growth, the spiky blue Agave tequilana will form its first and only flower, a towering twenty-foot column topped with yellow.  Fifteen years of production are wagered on this one flowering event.  If the bat is late, the plant will die; if the flower is late, the bat will die.

The bat comes.  Under the stars she pushes her furry, pollen covered face and long pink tongue into the fragrant, nectar dripping stamens.

Millions of years have helped hone this intimate partnership; a lifetime of energy, wagered precisely for a night of pollination.  An improbable marriage, no doubt.  At the end of the day, it’s just an old love story: between a succulent desert plant, and a furry little bat.

*      *      *

At the heart of Mexico’s agave industry a group of farmers, known as Jimadores, sharpen their blades.  It is not yet dawn, but fathers and sons are already at work slicing off the spiny leaves and loading their trucks with the massive round stems.  From here, the plants will be transported to distilleries, to have their sap extracted and distilled into an ancient spirit known as ‘tequila.’

In recent years global demand for top shelf tequila has seen a meteoric rise.  In 2016 Mexico exported 1 billion liters of the fragrant green drink, quadruple the volume of only four years previous.  Some estimate that Mexico’s tequila industry is worth over $3 billion, a cornerstone of the nation’s export economy.  Though Mexico is home to over 138 species of bats, the entire tequila industry rides on the shoulders of one: Leptonycteris yerbabuena, also known as the Lesser Long Nosed Bat, or… the Tequila Bat.

*      *      *

I first met Roderigo Medellín at the annual conference of the “North American Pollinator Protection Campaign” (NAPPC) in 2012.   He was receiving the highest award given by the coalition — for over twenty years of work as the leading conservationist for Mexico’s millions of bats.  His talk that night became the inspiration and the basis for my next graphic novel.

One community of Mexican Free Tailed bats will consume over 20 tons of agricultural insect pests in a single night.  As pollinators, seed dispersers, and pest killers, Mexican bats are known as “the farmers of the tropics.”  Medellín employs a powerful three-fold approach to conservation biology: Through Education, Landowner Partnerships, and Policy change, his team has managed to restore healthy numbers to hundreds of millions of Mexico’s threatened bats.  Of the nation’s 138 species, only 18 remain on the endangered species list.

Medellín loves all bats, but none capture his heart quite like the Tequila Bat. As he spoke of the pregnant females nesting all together in a single cave, a chill ran down my spine.  In one chamber, high in the Sonoran plateau, all the females of the species are waiting together to give birth.  The survival of the species – quite literally – hangs in the balance.

Every year the female bats will migrate 1500 kilometers south along the Sierra Madre mountains, gorging nightly on agave flowers, as they make their way to another special cave, nestled among the islands of Chamela, 20 miles off the western shore of Mexico.

In the crashing Pacific, a forested mountain rises out of the mist.  A boatman eats oysters outside, while Medellín makes his way to the dark interior.  The floor is thick with soupy, diarrhea-like bat guano, and the walls are crawling with cockroaches.  In minutes his clothing is soaked, as temperatures soar past 110-degrees.  But he has found what he is looking for.  Above his head, swarms upon swarms of tequila bats copulate in a feverish orgy of mass procreation.  Sure enough, separation of the sexes has given rise to these annual ceremonies of mass orgiastic coupling, never before seen by human eyes.

Over the next 30 days, hundreds of thousands of bats will be fertilized above the crawling roaches and soupy pools of guano.  And without so much as a kiss to their sires, the now pregnant females will fly north, traveling 100km per night, all the way back to their secret home in the Sonoran badlands, to arrive at last to the birthing cave.

Miraculously, after all the pups are born, the males will know instinctively where to find the tribal roost of their fathers, and embark on a distant journey to a home they’ve never seen.

*      *      *

Sometimes I am disheartened by films like “Life of Pi,” and “Avatar,” that are filled with fake ecology.  Nothing a person can make up will be more intricate and fascinating than life as it presents naturally. 

What turns me on as an artist are the questions, the jewels that lie hiding in plain site.  I am interested in the mythos that lies hiding in the caves of Mexico.  How do newborn males know where to fly when they make their first long trek to the homes of their fathers?  When did Tequila Bats choose to live in sexual segregation?  And how did they come to form such amazing partnerships with the succulent plants and cacti of the desert?

I am interested in coevolution; the intersection of plant, human, and animal cultures, the rise of complex tribal communities and their ancient partnerships.  The ‘Tequila Bat’ is a profound example of a crossover between wildlife and the complex trophic strata of human economies.

Mexico is home to some of the deepest caves in the world, spanning hundreds of miles under the ground, with crystals larger than old growth trees.  My graphic novels are about human beings gazing into mysterious dark interiors; from our own interior to the interior of Earth’s bottomless great mysteries.

I want to bring a sense of mysticism to the naked observations of science. 

*      *      *

So keep your eye out for a dusty, lawless border town at the height of Prohibition.  Here, tequila is an illicit liquor, and worth a pretty peso. 

Deep in a secret cave, widows and former prostitutes band together, to find safety and purpose by distilling agave, while above their heads the female bats nest in silence. 

Outside, Vincente, a tequila smuggling ganglord, will stop at nothing to find the cave.  The town rattles with jimadores, coyotes, migrantes, and liquor barons.  All factions are held at bay, however, by one woman:  Known only as La Camarera, she is the bartender, abiding with her five-year old son, a horse-whispering, gun-slinging boy called ‘Nacho.’   

If Vincente finds the cave, he will take over the distillery, and try to blast a tunnel under the border, unwittingly destroying the nesting site of the very bats who bring him his bounty.

Will La Camarera be able to save the bats and prevent a proverbial Snake from eating its own tail? 

Stay tuned to find out.

*     *     *

Aaron Birk is an award winning graphic novelist, puppeteer, dancer and choreographer.  He began developing an independent press in 2011, dedicated to publishing graphic novels about restoration ecology, ethnobotany, and of course, pollinators. His award-winning graphic novel, The Pollinator’s Corridor, was released in 2012.  Aaron Birk is feverishly developing his newest book, The Many Lives of Yin Tsao.  His website is currently under construction, but you can find The Pollinator’s Corridor and other lovely creations at www.etsy.com/shop/aaronbirk. If you would like to contact Aaron, or be on his mailing list, send an email to brinewater@gmail.com. For more information on Roderígo Medellín and the tequila bats, see the 2014 BBC documentary: “Natural World: The Bat Man of Mexico”

The Bees’ Needs:

Honey bee on milkweed

photo by Nancy Hayden
Honey bee on milkweed Honey bee on milkweed

Native bee conservation is near and dear to our hearts. During the past 25 years, our farm in northern Vermont, The Farm Between, has evolved from a diversified farm operation with organic meats, eggs, and fruits and vegetables to an organic fruit farm, and fruit and pollinator plant nursery. Enhancing biodiversity with pollinator and beneficial insect habitat has been a key focus over the years to increase the viability of our farming business while also healing and regenerating the ecosystems that we steward. In this article, we will outline the things that farmers, homesteaders and other landowners can do to enhance native pollinator populations on their land to increase pollination services and their own farm viability.

Many people are aware that honeybees (a “domesticated” bee introduced in the U.S. by European settlers), are stressed due to pesticide exposure, parasites and diseases, and loss of habitat. We love our honeybees, and the stresses are real, but we don’t worry too much about them because they have beekeepers like ourselves to help them along. We can overcome winter losses and support our bees by splitting hives, buying new queens, treating for mites and otherwise adapting our beekeeping practices. While honeybees are an iconic symbol that catches many people’s attention, we joke that ‘Saving the Honeybees’ is like trying to ‘Save the Chickens.’

A more difficult problem is the plight of the native bees and other wild pollinators, because for the most part, they are on their own. Generally speaking, what is good for honeybees is also good for native pollinators, so the not-so-accurate media coverage can be a good thing. Drastically increasing the honeybee population, however, or putting out poorly managed hives in an area can lead to competition for floral resources and parasites and diseases being shared with our native bees. Everything is connected to everything else!

There are around 275 native bee species in Vermont and around 4000 in the U.S. Many of these species are thought to be in decline. The Rusty Patched Bumblebee, for instance, was put on the Endangered Species List this year. In many cases native bees and other wild pollinators are the unsung partners providing pollination services for farm and garden crops as well as native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Social bumblebees, and solitary bees like the mason bees, digger bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, sunflower bees, and squash bees, help keep our farms and gardens bountiful. And they need our support now more than ever.

Two action areas we’ll be highlighting in this article are ideas for creating nesting and overwintering sites, and ways to increase season long floral resources. Another very important practice is to avoid use of pesticides. A good example of a harmful practice is using the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics) that are often found in home and garden products and are readily available to homeowners. Neonics are also used on most conventionally grown corn and soybeans as a standard seed treatment. Neonics are systemic pesticides that once applied are expressed throughout the plant, including the nectar and pollen.  Even at low concentrations ingesting this nectar and pollen has been shown to interfere with navigational systems of bees, their autoimmune responses, reproductive potential and other aspects of being a bee. These sublethal effects can cause additional stress to already stressed bee populations, so it’s best to avoid them. It is not only neonics that can harm pollinators. We don’t use any pesticides (including organically approved ones, which can be toxic to pollinators too!) because they can potentially impact our native bee populations and have other unforeseen consequences on the ecology of our farms and gardens.

As trained ecologists, we acknowledge how little we humans really know about the short and long term effects of pesticide use on our farm and garden ecosystems. Insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides are all biologically active compounds that can have negative effects on non-target organisms like beneficial insects, soil microbes, and important plant/fungi interactions. We also have little understanding of the effects of pesticides on another complex ecosystem – the human body, but that is another story! Our personal philosophy has been not to use them on our farm and to consume as little as possible of them in our diet.

Two sunflower bees

photo by Nancy Hayden
Two sunflower bees

Our Native Bees and their Nesting Needs


Bumblebees are an example of social bees and are the pollinator workhorses on our currants, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries and greenhouse tomatoes. They can build up colonies over the summer to as many as 300 bumblebee workers if conditions are good. In the late summer, the original queen lays eggs that will become the new queens and drones. These new virgin queens emerge in the late summer and fall and mate with the drones (ideally from another colony to avoid inbreeding). Only the newly mated bumblebee queens overwinter. The old queen, workers, and drones have all done their jobs and die out before winter.

Towards the end of April here in northern Vermont, about the time the shrub willows bloom, we see the first new bumblebee queens emerge from their overwintering protected places on the farm. They are out and about looking for nesting habitat. Their fat reserves that got them through the winter hibernation will be dwindling and they need nectar for energy. They will be cruising low near rock walls and potential cavities in the ground or in the old hay bales left lying around trying to find suitable nesting habitat.  Abandoned mouse nests are a favorite place to establish a colony, so we try to create artificial mouse nests in wooden boxes or by putting hay bales on pallets with rain covers to entice these new queens. Any old mouse nest material found around the farm is put in these nest spaces because bumblebee queens have been shown to be attracted to mouse urine! A queen bee with pollen on her legs means she has chosen a nest site and is beginning to provision it with pollen for her larvae. She collects all the pollen and nectar, makes the waxy brood and honey pots, and incubates the eggs until the first generation of workers emerge in less than a month. After the workers start helping with foraging and brood rearing chores she can stay at home and focus on laying eggs for the colony. Talk about a supermom!


homemade Mason Bee nest box

photo by Nancy Hayden
A homemade Mason Bee nest box

On our fruit farm we generate a lot of prunings from our fruit trees and berry bushes. Some people burn theirs, but we hate the idea of putting all that carbon into the atmosphere when we can put them to use on the farm. We make long piles of our woody scraps and other trimmings, and when they’re about 4 feet tall we cover the pile with a composted manure or barnyard scrapings.  The permaculture word for these is hugelkultur (mound culture) and they are known for sequestering carbon and providing long term soil fertility and moisture. We call them bumblekultur because our more open design creates possible nesting and overwintering habitat for bees. Over time, the prunings break down leaving a reduced mound with high organic matter. But for the first several years there are a lot of cracks and crevices that can serve as bee habitat. We grow squash, gourds, other food crops or cover crops like buckwheat and phacelia in the first year, and in later years, perennial and annual flowers. Not only does the three dimensional aspect help for bees’ nesting and overwintering sites, planting on the mound provides additional floral resources. And we’re sequestering carbon. Now, that’s stacking functions.

Solitary bees  

Solitary nesting bees make up the majority of our native bee species. They live for one season. They lay their eggs in chambers in the ground (ground nesting) or in small tunnels in trees, cracks and crevices in buildings or in plant stems (cavity nesting). Wherever the eggs are laid, the larvae have been provisioned with pollen balls to feed on. Bees are vegetarians and are adapted to collect pollen like nobody’s business (as opposed to their more ill- tempered cousins, the wasps, that are carnivores with a penchant for nectar as an energy source). The solitary bees are generally only out and about as adults for a few weeks in the season. In that short time, the females need to mate with the single minded (some would say shiftless) males, and create the next generation. They work alone to fill hollow stems and tunnels or underground chambers with pollen balls and eggs. Most of their lives are spent as larvae wallowing in a pollen ball in a cozy nest. Depending on the species, solitary bees overwinter as last stage larvae, pupae, or adults. Different species emerge at different times over the growing season and have different plant and nesting preferences. For example, Blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria) emerge in early spring and are especially effective pollinators of apples and other fruit trees. They lay their eggs in pre-existing cavities. Squash bees, pollinators of cucumbers, squash and pumpkins, are a good example of ground nesting bees and emerge as adults in the summer.

Cavity nesting habitat

Putting out bee boxes on your property for cavity nesters is a great way to help establish and grow populations of different bees such as blue orchard mason bees or leafcutter bees. We prefer to use disposable paper straws, 6-8 inch cardboard tubes, or hollow plant stems in our cavity nesting bee boxes. That way we can clean them out and replace them year to year to avoid the buildup of parasites and disease. Drilled blocks are more difficult to maintain. The straws are placed within wooden boxes or other handy holding devices (e.g. cut open plastic water bottles) that will keep them dry. These boxes are then attached on the south side of posts or buildings or trees. If the tube is accepted, a female mason bee will put a pollen ball in the end of the tube and lay her egg on it. With a little clay mud, she will seal up the egg and pollen ball in a small chamber. She will continue to place pollen balls and eggs in the tube, sealing off each chamber as she does. When she’s done, there will be 6 or so sealed chambers with pollen balls and eggs. Leafcutter bees line their nest holes with small cut pieces of leaves. We are delighted when we see the half-moon shaped holes cut out of our rose leaves. Please don’t reach for the pesticides if you see these holes on your rose leaves! These are your pollinators in action.

Different species of bees prefer different size holes. Cardboard straws are available from suppliers, but we also use hollow stems and sticks with pithy centers that we drill out with the appropriate drill bit. Generally, the tubes should be replaced annually to prevent the spread of pests and diseases.

Sometimes mason wasps or grass carrying wasps will use the holes designed for the bees. They bring in tree crickets (grass carrying wasps) or caterpillars (mason wasp), lay their eggs on them for their carnivorous larvae, then seal the hole with mud or grass. Although they’re not great pollinators, they’re beneficial in that they take many of our garden pests and use them for food for their larvae.

Leaving plant stems and having unmowed areas with elderberry, sumac, Joe Pye weed, and other hollow or pithy stems is another way to provide nesting habitat for these cavity nesting bees. The small carpenter bee (Ceratina) loves to dig tunnels in the pith of last year’s raspberry canes. We prune 6 inches above ground level to leave some vertical stems above ground. We also leave our prunings in piles that are accessible to these little pollinators. Celebrate the scruffy with Ceratina!

Ground nesting habitat

Many ground nesting bees, including squash bees and cellophane or plasterer bees, like open sandy soil to tunnel and build their nests for egg laying. They especially appreciate a south facing slope. Leaving these open spaces in the fields, gardens, or back yards is a great way to encourage these delightful and docile bees. Some will aggregate in favorable spots with hundreds of holes in a small area. For years, we have only seen a few plasterer or cellophane bees around in the spring on our farm. To encourage a larger population, we created sand box patches this past year and introduced bees caught at other sites. This is part of a new Northeast Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (SARE) Program grant that looks at ways to establish ground nesting (Colletes) bees on farms.

Enhancing Floral Resources

Apple blossoms on The Farm Between

photo by Nancy Hayden
Apple blossoms on The Farm Between

When native bees emerge from overwintering, they need to feed and gather pollen for their soon-to-be-laid young. One of the earliest blooming shrubs are willows. These include purple osier willow (a favorite of basket makers), pussy willows, black willows and dozens of others. One of the first things we did on our farm when we bought it 25 years ago was to allow the willows, birch, box elder and other trees to grow up in the seasonal stream that runs through the back pasture. Traditionally, this pasture was hayed and mowed to the edges of the stream. The stream was considered a ditch and regularly cleaned out and straightened so as to remove water off the land as quickly as possible. We wanted to take advantage of the water by slowing it down to collect nutrients and to create biodiverse habits. Our stream is now a wooded stream corridor and provides a variety of willows and other early flowering woody plants for bees. It also provides habitat for birds, amphibians, beneficial insects, and other wildlife. We periodically coppice some of the trees and willows to make ramial wood chips that we use on our perennial plantings.

Service berry blossoms are another early flower in northern Vermont and are common around the edges of woodlands. Also called Juneberries, they bear edible fruit in June which is a favorite of the birds. Varieties called Saskatoons, developed in Canada, have larger berries and are used for crop production. These make a great addition to edible landscaping projects and also serve as floral resources for pollinators. Haskaps, also called honey berries, are another early bloomer, flowering in early May on the farm. The bumblebee queens love the yellow flowers and we love the bluish/purple berries in June. We and the birds, that is.

We occasionally see bee visitors on the early daffodils around the house and Siberian Squill under the apple trees. Providing nectar and pollen resources during this early spring “shoulder” period can help not only the native bees but your or your neighbor’s honeybees as well.

Mid May through early June is when most of our fruit trees and berry bushes are in bloom. Many native trees and shrubs are also blooming. Although we keep honeybees, it is the native bees that we see most active on our fruit crops. Many flowers require something called buzz pollination, where the bee vibrates the flower at a certain frequency which encourages the pollen to release. Blueberry flowers are a good example. Also, the shape of the blueberry flower has evolved to suit native pollinators like bumblebees with their longer tongues. That’s why enhancing the bumblebee population around your blueberry patch can help your blueberry production. Because bumblebees need season-long floral resources, it’s important to have food available during July, August and September, after the blueberry flowering period is over, if you want bumblebees around in May.

We turned our 14-acre back pasture and meadow into a pollinator sanctuary for that very reason. The first thing we did was stop mowing areas or we timed our mowing for once a year at the end of the season. We also reduced our animal population so we had stopped grazing as well. If we mow, it will be in October, after the Monarchs (the few that we might have) have pupated and begun their migration back to Mexico. This is also after the goldenrod and asters are done providing late season nectar and pollen for pollinators.

When we stopped grazing the back pasture, we also started planting. The first year we planted a small standard heirloom apple orchard (about 50 trees) with a variety of “guild” plants including nitrogen fixing alders, bayberry, and Siberian pea shrub, along with other fruit plants like currants, wild plums and rowans between the trees. Every year we add more trees and plants. We’ve planted pear trees, basswood, honey locust, and black locust trees in other plots as well. The nice thing about the basswood and locust trees is that they bloom in June, later than the pears and apples thus providing additional pollen and nectar for bees without competing for their attention.

Between the rows of apples and pears, we allow the milkweed to grow. Their sweet pink flowers are loaded with native and honeybees in June and July. They’re also host to a variety of beetles, bugs, and an occasional Monarch larva. Orb weaver spiders with their bright yellow patterning dangle on their complex webs between the milkweed plants. It is a beautiful sight!

Last year, we harvested milkweed pods and sold them to a milkweed coop in Canada. Milkweed floss is buoyant and water resistant. It was used during WWII for life jackets by the Allies because the place where the Kapoc trees grew (the traditional life jacket material) was occupied by the Japanese. This was before the advent of synthetic fibers. But the natural floss fibers are making a comeback in Canadian coast guard life vests and fiber fill for comforters and jackets.

We continue to plant hundreds of shrubs and perennial flowers favored by bees like button bush, dogwoods, highbush cranberry, liatris, ironweed, swamp milkweed and more. It’s important to note that bees prefer white, pink, yellow and blue flowers, so we tend to focus on those colors when planting perennials and annuals. We do have some red bee balm which brings in hummingbirds and butterflies. Because many bees tend to practice floral constancy and preference while foraging, it’s better to plant patches of flowers rather than one here or there.

In the wetter areas of our pollinator sanctuary, reed canary grass had taken over. We planted willows, elderberry, wetland roses, nanny berry, and other native shrubs and used a woven landscape fabric for weed control. The fabric can be pulled up in a few years after the plants are established and can shade out the grasses. We reuse the fabric for other plantings.

Several years ago we conducted a study funded by SARE to look at using cover cropping as a way to enhance floral resources. A short summary video about this research can be found at www.thefarmbetween.com/resources/. Although we have moved to mostly a no till perennial polyculture farm, as vegetable farmers we knew the importance of cover cropping for enhancing the soil, preventing erosion, competing with weeds and other benefits. Our study looked at adding another important cover crop function, that of nectar and pollen resources for pollinators. We conducted replicated trials of buckwheat, phacelia and a perennial conservation mix. Cover cropping with flowering species like buckwheat, vetch, and clover, is a great way to enhance these bee resources and do your soil a favor.

The perennial conservation mix did not fare well in the short term, and it took a couple of years to get established, but in the long term, it has turned into a wonderful bee resource — especially the early season lupine, and the late season, perennial Maximillian sunflowers. While our annual plots from that research have long since been converted to perennial plantings, our perennial conservation mix plots have remained as permanent bee resources.

Besides enhancing floral resources for the native bees, planting a diversity of native plants, shrubs, and trees also provides places where beneficial insects, spiders, birds and other insectivores can live. This in turn builds a natural pest management program for the farm and garden. For some people these wild and unmanaged areas in and around the farm and garden, as well as only late season mowing in certain areas of the property, look unkempt. We think it’s time to rethink pretty. Knowing that these beautifully scruffy areas are ecologically diverse and beneficial to bees, birds, and others will hopefully change some attitudes. Well-manicured green lawns are actually biological deserts and if certain lawn products are used, they could even be toxic lawns. We need to create and celebrate biodiversity throughout our living and working landscapes.

In summary, there are many things that landowners can do to enhance pollinators and pollination services on their property. Creating a biodiverse landscape with season-long floral resources and nesting habitat for native bees is a great first step that will bring immediate results. By observing the miracle of the plant and pollinator interactions, we feel more connected with our natural world. Besides, we all want bountiful farms and gardens including our partners, the native bees.

John and Nancy Hayden own and operate The Farm Between in Jeffersonville, VT, an organic fruit farm and fruit nursery. They specialize in cold-hardy fruit trees, uncommon berries, and pollinator conservation plants. John is also a pollinator habitat and fruit pollination consultant. For more information, visit www.thefarmbetween.com.


The Miller Method of Queen Rearing for the Backyard Beekeeper

It’s Spring in the Northeast, which means expansive season is upon us. Just as the trees put out flowers, opening their most delicate parts to cross pollination, so too do hives flex their reproductive organs.

As we hurtle towards the crescendo of daytime hours that is Summer Solstice, the honeybees are abuzz with all of the resources and conditions necessary for optimal reproduction. Our role is to step in and facilitate reproduction so we, as beekeepers, can reap the rewards within our apiary rather than loose our bees to swarms, the natural reproductive response.

Some reflection we can do before we get started:

What do you know about honeybees? Do you have a clear understanding of the seasonal rhythms of your hives? Can you identify a healthy brood pattern? Diseases? Mite pressure? What is your record keeping style, and how can you pull data from said system? Do you know how queens and drones mate, and for how long? What do we know about the role of nurse bees in raising queens? These are all important skills to research and master before moving forward with queen rearing. Familiarize yourself with the honeybee life cycle, and the brood cycle. A worker’s brood pupation cycle is 21 days, a drone’s is 24 days, a queen’s is 14. You can use “bee math” to determine how many days or weeks until your hive increases brood or drone population or an emerging queen. In this article I’ll be speaking to beekeepers who have a clear understanding of these key points.

We also need to think about sourcing honey bees. Where do you currently purchase or source new bee stock? Are we sourcing packages or breeder queens? Races of bees currently being cultivated in the US with success include Russians, Italians, and Carniolans.

It’s important to use high quality queen stock from professional breeders to build your stock, rather than “package” queens, which can be inconsistent in quality. Choose a race that is suited to your climate, conditions and management style so you can maximize yourself.

When I say “most success”, I’m thinking what’s the minimum input for the maximum output, based on my needs as an apiarist. I want to produce queens & starter colonies to expand my apiary. This means honey is less crucial. I keep Russian bees because of their reproductive proclivity, winter survivability and propolis making capacity. Propolis is a medicinal resin highly valued in the herbalist community. “Most success” will look different for every beekeeper.

Finally, before you begin, consider what method you’re currently using to reproduce?

Is anyone doing splits or walk away splits? If so, you already have a sense of what resources are necessary to make a new queen, and a sense of the pupation cycle of the queen, drone and worker honeybee. These skills can be directly applied to queen rearing.

The first step in rearing queens is a strong analysis of your hive’s strength.

How Do I Analyze Hive Strength?

The queen’s health greatly impacts the hive’s health. The presence of drones indicates a healthy hive prepared to reproduce. Beekeepers have various ways to manage for pests and disease load. It is important to track pest pressure to ensure you’re breeding from a healthy hive. You can do so using mite washes or mite drops. In our changing climate, it is critical to manage mite counts in Spring, Summer, and Fall, so you’re aware of pest pressure throughout the year, and the impact it has on the hive’s health. It’s equally important to keep diligent records, but find a system that you can manage quickly in the apiary. Hives used for reproduction should survive a minimum of one full year, so that you’ve seen how it manages pest pressure for 1 full year.

There are three mite sampling strategies alcohol washes (shake bees in alcohol which dislodges the mites and enables a count), sugar rolls (similarly shake bees in sugar to dislouqdge mites) and mite drops. I use the first two. I use powdered sugar rolls in Spring and early Summer, in order to keep populations up (sugar rolls don’t kill the bees the way alcohol washes do), and alcohol washes in late Summer.

The sugar roll sampling strategy will work better in low humidity conditions. Use caution when using sugar roll sugar rolls can give inconsistent results. If you don’t let sugar sit for long enough mites won’t release and if it is too humid the mites won’t release. When using both mite and alcohol washes use ½ cup of bees a total sample size of 300 bees is recommended.

If I have a high threshold in Summer I switch my bottom boards to screened boards and use the sticky board/drop method to track increases or decreases in mite numbers after treatment.

Russian bees, the race of bees I run, tend towards aggression in Fall and I minimize inspection to treatments and feeding, though as our Fall is warm here in New England, I’m finding it increasingly necessary to track mite drops in Fall so I can respond with late season treatments such as oxalic aced, if I see a spike in mite populations after the honey harvest.

How Do I Mate Strong Queens?

My top two criteria are queens who demonstrate hardy and productive characteristics and queens who are resilient with minimum input. Again, there will be variance in the characteristics you’re seeking to propagate based on your practice. Queens should survive a minimum of one winter as well.
I think it’s important to talk about where our queens are from, and who is breeding them. What are the practices at the queen breeder’s apiary, and how are they different or similar to your own?

What is their track record for disease and aggression? Their survival success rate? Their lineage tracking method? Research, planning and education are as important to a good beekeeper’s practice as they are to a farmer’s or gardener’s. A good breeder will be able to discuss lineage, practices and honeybee race with ease, and you can use this information to make informed decisions about who you procure your lines from.

Brood Parameters for Queen Rearing

A strong understanding of the state of the brood is crucial in assessing readiness to mate. Healthy brood means healthy workers, a strong concentric spiraling pattern is an indicator of brood health (see images). Some chewed out brood cells are a sign of Varroa resistance and strong grooming behaviors. There should be a handful of chewed out spots but not an abundance. More mature brood should always be in the center of the spiral with less mature uncapped brood and eggs on the outer edges. The presence of drone comb is as important as the presence of plentiful worker brood. Twenty to twenty five percent of your total mature brood should be drone brood for successful mating. Most small scale beekeepers will use what is called an open mating system, this means queens you produce will be free to mate with drones within mating distance of your apiary. When the queen embarks on her mating flights, she’ll need to mate with many drones. Beekeepers will strategically locate hives within flight distance of each other to maximize the family type and number of quality sexually mature drones available for mating. Even if you can’t strategically place drone producing hives, it’s important that for every queen rearing colony you also propagate drone rearing colonies to promote drone production simultaneous with the queen’s sexual maturity. Drone brood’s pupation cycle is 24 days. Drones are sexually mature at ten days old. In order for a colony to act as a drone producing colony for mating, drone comb should be given to the drone mother colonies 35-40 days before the sexually mature drones are needed.

When open mating, it is important to consider the number of queens you’re producing in any one yard, to minimize the overproduction of queens, which can lead to inbreeding and poor sperm collection.

I believe the Miller Method is the most accessible for small scale queen-rearers to begin with. Why?

It is simple with minimal techniques to be mastered. There’s no extra equipment needed and there is little or no cost, giving you ample opportunity to experiment without incurring additional materials cost. Beekeeping is expensive, especially with the increase in losses beekeepers are experiencing across the world. Any time we can save money and time while learning a new skill, we should.

Let’s walk through the steps of the Miller Method:

zig zag cut

Step One

Step 1: Cut undrawn comb into a zig zag, like a shark’s tooth. You can also cut partially drawn comb that is unattached at the bottom. This will promote egg laying in the newly drawn cells and/or wax.

Step 3

Step 2: Insert Cut comb into a robust hive with a healthy queen you’d like to use for mating.

Step 3:  Check the hive after 1 week. You are waiting for the comb to be drawn and for your breeder queen to lay eggs in the cells along the edge. Once the eggs are observed you’re ready to make up a queen-less nucleus colony. The eggs should be 1-3 days old and should be standing up in the cells, like small grains of rice. Eggs that are “laying down” have already hatched, and are no longer viable for queen rearing using this method.

Step 4: Insert the drawn comb and egg frame into a healthy and robust queenless colony with no open brood and plentiful young nurse bees and capped brood. Worker bees in a queen-rearing hive should be thick with newly emerged nurse bees. Frames from a breeder hive should be covered in young nurse bees. You need plentiful nurse bees to make queen cells, and generous nectar, and pollen production to contribute to robust nutrition for all stages of larval development.

Note: The queen-cell rearing colony should be made up and queenless for 24 hours before you insert the drawn comb and eggs you wish to incubate.

This colony needs ample nutrition and plentiful nurse bees to “finish” cells. Your queenless colony will “finish” the cells, i.e. draw them out to completion.
How Do I Cultivate Quality Queen Cells?

Healthy queen cells have a generous amount of royal jelly as their epicenter. The royal jelly is imperative for healthy queen nutrition.

Step 5: Queens incubate for 14 days so on day 12 cut and move cells into nucleus colonies. Ten days after the transfer your cell will be capped. Do not disturb the queen cells during this late stage of development. Wing buds are developing during days 9-11 and if you disrupt/move/tilt cells you may impact this wing development. Queens who cannot fly can not mate, no wing development means queens cannot fly. If you wait too long, all additional cells will be destroyed by the first queen to hatch. Cells are best moved on day 12 or 13 of the queen’s pupation. Queens will hatch between the 13th and 15th day, and take mating flights for approximately two weeks.

Step 6: Make up a series of queen-less nucleus colonies on the 11th day. Nucleus colonies should be given one frame of pollen and one frame of honey to ensure there’s enough nutrition for emerging queen and worker larva. Nucleus colonies should be made up of 2-3 frames of capped brood, honey, pollen and 2-3 frames of nurse bees. The nucleus colony also needs capped brood, to hatch and care for mated queen’s larva. These colonies of capped brood & nurse bees should be left to rear their queens. Within 3-4 weeks these small nucleus colonies will be emergent nurse bees and new foragers, with a mated queen.

Where the brood is pulled from doesn’t matter, as long as it is healthy, with minimal varroa mite infestation disease. Do not put in uncapped brood — uncapped brood requires more resources and comes with the risk that the hive may begin to rear these into queens, thus nullifying your work propagating queens you prefer. Nucleus colonies should be checked for eggs after 3-4 weeks.
Step 7: Each new nucleus colony will need 1-2 queen cells. I use a small sharp knife to cut each cell out of the wax. I use my finger or a small staple to affix the queen cell to the center of the nucleus colony’s brood nest, where I’ve placed my capped brood. Place queen cells in the center of the brood nest to ensure nurse bees care for the ripe cells. After 2-3 days, check to make sure the cells have hatched. Unhatched cells should be discarded. Queens can be caged on the frame or in individual cages to ensure safety if not transferred

Caging queens is not optimal, queens are best left to mate openly. Queens who emerge and go on mating flights according to the natural cycle have shown to be more productive over a longer period of time. Based on research conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership we know that queens who are caged and then mated tend to be less productive. Caged queens who are mated or unmated need to be fed, and incubated at a temperature of 92-95 degrees Fahrenheit. It is best to use a reptile incubator or warm spot in your house. Queens do not have the ability to regulate their own body temperature during fluctuating temperatures without the assistance of the hive. Though they can feed themselves, they can die if not provided with proper nutrition.

A Comment on Marked Queens

Marked queens help us accurately track the year a queen was bred and the line she was bred from. We can use this data to then determine a line’s survivability and viability over time. Marking queens gives you the ability to know if your queen’s been superseded or swarmed, which helps with management when you’re busy. I recommend using a paint marker such as Posco.

A small dot of paint on the abdomen is all it takes to mark a queen. Avoid the mark getting paint on the wing buds or thorax. The workers of the hive may kill a queen or supersede her if they sense she’s damaged, if she can’t share pheromones successfully.

My strategy for marking queens is to use a queen clip catcher ($3), push up queen cage one handed queen catcher. I catch a queen in the clip catcher, transfer the queen using my ungloved hand to transition the queen to the push up cage/one handed queen catcher. In here I can gently press the queen to the top of the cage using the foam padding and mark her without damaging her. Minimizing the handling of the queen means minimizing the stress, and thus the stress pheromones that may accompany it. The 2 cage method also minimizes damage to my queens from improper handling. Once marked I give a queen 1-2 minutes to dry so the bees can’t clean off the paint, and the queen doesn’t smell different, which could result in balling. After she is marked I release the queen into her colony by opening the cage on the top bars of the brood nest. The queen will crawl down into the hive, and the hive can be closed up.

Whether you are marking queens or not the Miller Method is an excellent practice to get you started on the queen rearing journey. I’ve included links below to reputable sources, and a link to a handy Queen Rearing Calendar from our friends at The Bee Yard. Happy queen raising and best in bees!

Sources and Works Cited:
• Better Queens, by Jay Smith
• Increase Essential, by Lawrence John Connor
• Mating Biology of the Honeybee, by Gudrun Koeniger, Niklaus Koeniger, Jamie Ellis and Lawrence Connor
• Bush Bees: http://www.bushfarms.com/beesmillermethod.htm
• Queen Rearing Calendar: http://www.thebeeyard.org/queen-rearing-calendar/
• Yard Birds Farm: http://yardbirdsfarm.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/yardbirdsbees/?hl=en

Excerpts from A Citizen’s Guide to Creating Pollinator Habitat in Connecticut

excerpted by Jack Kittredge
from a work by Dr. Kimberly Stoner,
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station


Pollination – the transfer of pollen from a male anther to a female stigma – is basic to the sexual reproduction of flowering plants. Some plants, particularly grasses, are pollinated by wind, and some by water, but the vast majority of plant species – the most recent estimate is 87% – are pollinated by some kind of animal.

Although many different animals carry out pollination, including birds, bats, beetles, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and many other insect groups, this guide will primarily focus on creating habitat for bees, including wild bee species as well as the domesticated honey bee, with additional notes on other pollinators such as butterflies.

Creating Pollinator Habitat

The first questions to ask are: Why do you want to create pollinator habitat? What are your goals for your pollinator habitat? Because different groups of people are likely to have different goals, this guide will be divided up into the following sections:

1. If you are a beekeeper, your primary reason for creating pollinator habitat might be to support the health and productivity of your honey bees. You may want to minimize the need to supply supplemental feed, either pollen and pollen substitutes or sugar, and you may also want to produce a harvest of honey for your-self or your business. In addition, you may want to diversify the sources of pollen for your honey bee colonies to improve their health.

2. If you are a farmer or orchardist, your primary reason for creating pollinator habitat might be to support pollinators of a particular crop, or of a range of crops. You may want to support generalist social bees, like honey bees, bumble bees and some sweat bees, that are active through a long season, and you may also want to support a diversity of solitary bees that are active on your crops of interest during the time they bloom, particularly if you have an orchard with spring-blooming fruit trees.

3. If you are a manager of a large land area, for example along roadsides or utility rights-of-way, or in a conservation area managed by a land trust, your primary reason to create pollinator habitat might be to use the land you manage in a way that benefits the broader ecosystem and creates a corridor for pollinators to move and thrive. You may also need to meet mandates from state or federal governments for planting native plants or creating pollinator habitat.

4. If you are a gardener, your primary reason to create pollinator habitat might be to observe pollinators up close, to make a statement with your own property about supporting pollinators, or any of the other reasons above – to support honey bee health, to get pollination in your own garden, or to create habitat that benefits the larger ecosystem.

For any piece of land, there are usually multiple goals, and it is important to identify these as well. You might want to create a permanent pollinator habitat that will minimize maintenance costs and labor. You might want to get a yield of flowers or fruit from your pollinator habitat. You might need to build soil organic matter, or control erosion, or buffer a waterway, or control invasive plant species. If you are managing land along a roadside or right-of-way, there are a whole series of goals required for public safety. In your home garden, you might also want your pollinator habitat to look good!

The next question is: What do you have now on your site? It is generally easier to protect the pollinator habitat you already have than to establish new habitat. Also, in improving existing habitat or adding new plantings, you will want to supplement what you already have by filling gaps – adding flowering plants when there isn’t enough bloom or adding nesting habitat you don’t already have.

What does pollinator habitat look like? Bees use a wide range of flowering plants including shrubs and trees as well as flowering perennials. Some bee-friendly shrubs and trees may have inconspicuous flowers, like those of maples (Acer spp.) or inkberry (Ilex glabra), both of which provide important nectar and pollen resources, and even provide honey flows for honey bees in some regions of the US. Some places to look for bee habitat are in forests (particularly for bees active early, when trees are flowering, and before they leaf out), forest understory gaps and edges, hedgerows, windbreaks, edges of ponds, ditches, fields, and roads and along streams. Fallow fields and flowering cover crops, such as alfalfa, canola, clovers, and vetch can provide temporary bee pastures.

Natural habitats also provide nesting areas for bees. Most bumble bee nests are in holes in the ground made by other animals or in thick clumps of grass. Most other bees are also ground nesting, making their own tunnels in soil that is bare or partially covered by patchy vegetation. Other nesting habitats for bees are rot-ting wood with holes and hollow stems.

Once you know what pollinator habitats you already have, it is important to protect them from damaging disturbance and pesticides, particularly insecticides. Bees and other pollinating insects are highly susceptible to insecticides. Although there are some differences among insecticides in toxicity to bees or other insect groups, in general it is best to avoid applying insecticides to any flowering plants when they are in bloom and being visited by pollinators. Additional precautions for insecticides that are systemic  those that can travel through the plant and potentially contaminate nectar and pollen are also important, but more complex.

Once you know and protect the pollinator habitats you have, then you can find places to improve on existing habitat or add new habitat for pollinators. For this, I have written separate guides for beekeepers, farmers, managers of large land areas, and gardeners. Please find the appropriate section for you.

Pollinator Habitat for Beekeepers

Although honey bees and other pollinators use many of the same flowers, honey bees also have different habitat requirements from wild bees and other pollinators. Because honey bees are managed by beekeepers, they can be moved to apiary sites that fit their needs, or else the bee-keeper can improve habitat for them in an existing location. Obviously, honey bees kept in hives do not have a requirement for natural nesting sites. The Beekeeper’s Handbook gives criteria for choosing a good apiary site, including dependable nectar and pollen sources within a 2 mile radius (honey bees travel farther than many native bees), a continuing source of water, vehicle access for moving equipment, and good relationships with neighbors to prevent vandalism or theft and to avoid issues with stinging.

Additional recommendations for locating hives for bee health, to avoid problems with neighbors, and to facilitate inspection of the colonies by the State Apiary Inspector are on the website of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Owners of honey bee hives are required by state law to register the location of all hives with the State Entomologist by Oct. 1 of each year. The form for registration is on the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station website.

Honey bees benefit from having sources of nectar and pollen during as much of the flight season as possible, starting with the first warm days above 50˚ F until the last warm days above 50˚. Unlike our native bees, honey bees are able to store large quantities of nectar in the form of honey and also to store pollen in the form of fermented bee bread in the hive, and are thus able to survive as a colony through periods of dearth during the season, and to remain active inside the hive during the winter. Beekeepers have the option of feeding honey bees sugar in various forms (corn syrup, sugar syrup, dry sugar, fondant) and pollen or a pollen substitute when flowering resources and stored honey and pollen are not sufficient for their needs.

An average honey bee colony consumes between 22 and 57 pounds of pollen per year and about 700 pounds of nectar per year. Pollen is the source of protein, minerals, lipids, and vitamins. Pollen from different plants varies in nutritional value, including in protein content and amino acid balance. Mixing pollen from different plants can help to balance any nutritional deficiencies in any single source of pollen, and bees live longer and have stronger immune functions when feeding on mixed pollen. Nectar is the source of carbohydrates for bees. Most nectars are in the range of 25% to 50% sugars, and are converted by the bees into honey by adding enzymes and drying the nectar so that the moisture is only 17-18%. This allows the honey to be stored for later use, but also means that the bees need access to water to add to the honey before they can use it.

Honey bees need water to dilute their stored honey and to cool the hive when the combination of warm weather and heat created by the metabolism of the bees raises the temperature inside the hive above 100˚ F. Beekeepers should either locate their hives near a natural water source, such as a pond or stream, or else provide a continuing source of clean water through the season, starting March 15.

Honey bees are not native to North America, and thus they have no preference for native plants over other plants rich in nectar or pollen. Thus honey bees also use many invasive plant species for nectar and pollen. The website of the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group gives the current list of invasive plants and potentially invasive plants. The group also has lists of recommended alternative plants native to Connecticut, many of which are excellent sources of nectar and pollen.

Some plants have nectar or pollen toxic to honey bees including some popular plants such as rhododrendons, azaleas, oleander, amaryllis, trumpet flower, mountain laurel, and some common weedy plants such as tansy ragwort and black nightshade.

There are many lists of plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen for honey bees, mostly based on the observations of beekeepers and bee scientists. A list focusing specifically on common plants good for honey bees is in the Beekeeper’s Handbook. Many other lists of plants rich in nectar and pollen, good for a wider diversity of pollinators, are generally good for honey bees, too.

While honey bees do not care whether the plants providing them nectar and pollen are native, native plants have benefits for other pollinators and wildlife, help to restore our native ecosystems, and, if planted in the right place and cared for at the time of establishment, will be more sustainable over the long term than exotic plants. There are also numerous lists of pollinator-friendly plants for the Northeast, which are regionally native, if not necessarily native to Connecticut.

Sammataro, D. and A. Avitabile. 2011. Beekeeper’s Handbook, 4th edition. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Pollinator Habitat for Farmers and Orchard-ists

Most fruit and nut crops, and many fruit-bearing vegetable crops (such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins) benefit from the ac-tivity of pollinators, either by producing a greater yield or a higher quality fruit. Depending on the size of the field or orchard and the surrounding pollinator habitat, native bees may be able to provide most or all of the pollination needed, with honey bees available to add to the local pollinators. Often the crop polli-nation rate is higher with a greater diversity of pollinators.

The Xerces Society has forms for assessing pollinator habitat for farms and agricultural lands. The basic approach is to look at the dominant vegetation within a mile of the site; the percentage of flower-rich habitat on site, including flowering shrubs and trees as well as wildflowers, and break them down into those blooming in spring, summer, and fall; identify possible bee nesting habitat; and then evaluate management practices (such as insecticide use, presence of buffer strips to protect pollinators from pesticides, and haying, mowing or burning practices).

One factor that determines the abundance and diversity of wild bees in an orchard is the distance from natural areas, mostly forests and forest edge habitats. Wild bees pollinating apples feed on pollen from other spring-blooming trees, such as willow, sugar maple, and red maple. Bees can also find nesting habitats  patches of bare ground, tunnels in the ground from rodents and other animals, insect tunnels in wood, and hollow stems  in forests, forest edges, and in other natural areas such as old fields, meadows, and the edges of streams.

How much pollinator habitat is needed to improve pollination, crop yield, pay back the costs of establishment and increase profit? That depends on many fac-tors, but a rough estimate of the amount of natural area (not supplemented specifically to support pollinators) in the surrounding landscape to provide pollination service to a crop is about 25%, while plantings specifically designed as pollinator resources can benefit a crop in the range of 2-8% of crop area.

Another important factor is pesticide use. Many farmers and orchardists in Connecticut already practice integrated pest management, and protecting pollinators should be part of the overall integrated pest management plan for the farm. This can take the form of using alternatives to pesticides for pest management; choosing pesticides that are less toxic to bees; changing the timing, formulation, or method of application to reduce bee exposure; and creating barriers to prevent drift of pesticides into bee habitat.

What are the important crop pollinators on farms? Spring-blooming fruit crops, such as apple or blueberry, draw on a broad diversity of bee species. For exam-ple, a recent study of bees pollinating apple orchards in New York State identified 55 bee species in 11 different functional groups, classified by size, sociality (social, solitary, parasitic on other bees, or communal), and nesting habitat (ground, cavity, wood or stem), and determined that better pollination and fruit quality was associated with the presence of more functional groups of bees.

While the bees visiting spring-blooming orchards include many solitary bee species active only for a few weeks in the spring, the bees visiting sum-mer-blooming vegetable crops like watermelon, cucumber, tomato, and pepper are mostly social bees with colonies active over a long season. Here in Connect-icut, vegetable farms are highly diversified, and many have sources of pollen and nectar for bees over the season.

Flowering plants can have benefits in pest control as well as in pollinator abundance because many predators and parasites of insect pests need nectar or pollen resources at some stage in their life cycles. In Michigan, for example, a series of studies of wildflower plots adjacent to blueberry fields have shown that these plants supported beneficial natural enemies of insect pests as well as pollinators of blueberries, and increased yield and profit for the farmers.

Choosing the right plants to add requires good information about the entire system. While adding plant diversity can benefit pollinators and natural enemies of pests, and when well-integrated into the farm can provide other benefits such as nitrogen fixation, erosion management, and improvements in soil health, added plants can also become weeds and compete with the crop plants and can provide alternate hosts to pest and pathogens of the crop plants, too.

Here is a summary of guidelines from many sources for pollinator resource plantings for farmland:
1. Plan for at least 3 plant species to be simultaneously in bloom at any point in the season, with the bloom of the mix extending across the flight period of the main bees pollinating the crop.
2. Choose flowers with a variety of flower structures to benefit many different functional groups of pollinators (bees and other pollinators of different sizes and with different behavior patterns and mouthparts).
3. Use native plants and local genotypes wherever this is practical, although non-native plants may also benefit generalist bees and their seeds may be less expensive.
4. Do not use plants that are weeds in the target crop.
5. Analyze the site characteristics and the level of maintenance that will be practical and cost-effective, and use only plants that are suited to the site and that will establish successfully under the level of care available.
6. Select a mixture of plants to meet long-term goals, although replanting may be necessary after a period of several years for herbaceous plant species that are not strongly competitive.
7. Limit plants blooming simultaneously with the crop, preferring plants blooming before and after, to limit competition for pollinators.
8. Native shrubs and trees can provide a high density of floral resources to pollinators on a small land base, and can provide flowers earlier in the spring than many herbaceous perennials, but will also take longer to mature. They are also longer-lived than herbaceous perennials when well-adapted to the site, so may continue to provide resources for many years.

Pollinator Habitat for Managers of Large Land Areas

Including Roadsides, Rights-of-Way, Restoration of
Disturbed Sites and Conservation Areas

Roadside and utility rights-of-way have the potential to be excellent habitats for pollinators and also for many other wildlife species that need early successional habitat (open land with grasses and herbaceous plants rather than trees and shrubs. Rights-of-way have both negative and positive effects on pollinators and other wildlife. Depending on the specific biology of the species involved, they can have negative effects from habitat fragmentation, pollution, and spread of invasive species or habitat generalists into new areas, but they also have the potential to provide a huge resource of stable, early successional habitat to bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and other wildlife. The area under powerlines covers between 5 and 8 million acres in the continental US, and national roadway rights-of-way cover nearly 10 million acres. In one study in Maryland, a powerline right-of-way, managed every 4-5 years with selective basal herbicide spraying of tall-growing trees, removal of all trees and topping of all shrubs greater than 3 meters, had dense growth of shrubs favorable to pollinators, and had higher species richness of bees and more rare species than nearby annually mowed fields. Another study of a powerline corridor running from central Connecticut north to southern New Hampshire found significantly greater plant diversity in the right-of-way than in adjacent woodland areas, including host plants for many specialist bees and rare moths and butterflies.

In managing land on a large scale, a systematic, comprehensive approach is needed, as is a level of expertise in ecological restoration and the specific constraints and opportunities of a particular use and site that are beyond the scope of this guide.

While pollinator habitats on farms often have goals of increasing and stabilizing pollination of specific crops, the goals for increasing or improving pollinator habitat on other lands can be broader. Crop pollinators are a limited subset of wild pollinators. Pollinator plantings that are not directly tied to agricultural goals have the opportunity to support a broader range of pollinators and other native wildlife, and to make connections with the surrounding native ecosystem. These goals are best accomplished by encouraging the growth of native plants, either through management practices or by deliberate planting of seeds or other plant materials. Well-planned native plantings can also serve other goals of land management by creating locally-adapted functional plant communities for the long term that will reduce maintenance after establishment. Native species are generally in ecological balance with their associates and competitors, and have pest, predators, and diseases that limit their abundance, unlike many non-natives, which can dominate habitats and eliminate native plants and animals from the area.

What is a native plant? A useful definition, adopted by the Federal Native Plant Conservation Committee is: “a plant species that occurs naturally in a particu-lar region, state, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions”. Note that “native” refers to an area of interest.

Before altering the environment to improve pollinator habitat, it is best to start with an inventory of existing conditions, including native plant communities, nesting habitats for pollinators, and site conditions. The Xerces Society has created a pollinator habitat assessment tool for natural areas and rangelands and guides for site analysis are also included in manuals for roadsides.

Where native plant communities are already present, it is both more economical and more ecologically sound to manage them by removing any undesirable plants and, in heavily mowed areas, reducing mowing, rather than planting new plant communities. Undesirable plants can be removed using flame guns for spot weeding, or physical removal, followed by replanting with native species. Delaying mowing until late fall allows native warm season grasses and late blooming wildflowers to mature and disperse seed.

When bringing in seed mixes, plugs, or other plant material, it is very important not to plant any plant species that are native but of conservation concern (en-dangered, threatened or species of special concern) in Connecticut. There are several reasons for not planting these rare plants:
1. By bringing in seed from other states where the plant may be common, or from commercial sources, the genetics of a small, locally-adapted population may be swamped,
2. Planting rare plants in new sites may create confusion about which populations are naturally occurring and which are the result of intervention.
3. If the rare plant is legally protected, the new site will come under legal restrictions as well.

A very good practice for identifying plants for new or improved pollinator habitats is to find reference sites nearby – undisturbed areas with native plants and pollinator activity and with similar sun exposure, soil type, water, and slope to the target site to be improved. This will show you what native plants grow well together under similar circumstances and can act as a model for the new site.

Many native trees and shrubs are important resources for pollinators, particularly in spring when few wildflowers are in bloom. Lists of trees and shrubs native to Connecticut and which have the potential to perform well in landscapes are available. Managing trees and shrubs along road-sides and utility rights-of-way both as valuable resources (for shade, water and soil health, and clean air, as well as for their benefits for pollinators and other wildlife) and for safety requires knowledge and planning in order to create a mix of canopy trees, understory trees, and shrubs that is healthy, stable, and attractive.

Meadows with a mix of native grasses and native herbaceous plants can be excellent habitats for pollinators because they are sunny, open environments favored by many bees (and butterflies), and provide diverse sources of nectar and pollen. Establishing new meadows of native plants requires specific knowledge about plant choices, extensive site preparation, appropriate equipment for seeding, and follow-up to remove weeds in order to have good establishment, and also re-quires periodic mowing at intervals of 1-3 years in order to prevent woody plants from coming in.

Pollinator Habitat for Gardeners

pollination of a flowerGardens are an important resource for many pollinators. Gardens are key resources for the survival of bumble bee nests from one year to the next. The positive effect of gardens on bumble bee populations spills out onto more than ½ mile of surrounding farmland. Even suburban yards dominated by lawns, but not treated with any pesticides, supported a diversity of 111 species of bees, collected over 2 year in 17 yards. Because pollinators are able to take advantage of flowering and nesting spaces on a small scale, even dense urban environments can support diverse pollinators as long as pesticide use is minimal.

Research by Dr. Douglas Tallamy has shown that gardens have even more value for pollinators and other wildlife when diverse native plants are deliberately chosen to fit into the local ecosystem. Central to this argument is the value of native plants to feeding native caterpillars of moths and butterflies, which evolved along with our native plant species, and which then are food sources for other wildlife, such as birds. Native flowering plants also evolved together with native bee species. Many bee species are generalists, and will use a wide variety of flowers, including exotic as well as native species. However, there are also 61 species of native bees in the Northeast that will feed their larvae only pollen of one or a few genera of native plants.

For those specifically interested in habitat for butterflies, the Connecticut Butterfly Association has publications online with life histories of each butterfly spe-cies, including host plants for the larvae (caterpillars) and a list of nectar sources for adult butterflies. The Connecticut office of the Natural Resources Conser-vation Service also has several publications on caterpillar host plants for showy butterfly species, nectar-rich flowers for butterflies – many of which attract a diversity of other pollinators – native to Connecticut, and site requirements for growing butterfly nectar plants native to Connecticut. Those specifically con-cerned about the monarch butterfly will want to include milkweeds (Asclepias sp.) as host plants for the monarch caterpillars as well as nectar plants for the butterfly adults.

Fortunately, due to the great interest among gardeners in using native plants, there are many in-formation resources available on native plants for gardens and landscapes, including some that are specifically about plants native to Connecticut.

Building a Farm for Pollinators

Mason Bee nest box

photo by Jack Kittredge John shows one of his Mason bee nesting boxes.

The Lamoille River, which starts in the mountains of Stannard, Vermont, and drops 1600 feet while running westward across most of the state until entering Lake Champlain above Burlington, waters much of northern Vermont. Normally a mild and pleasant watercourse, it occasionally becomes a dangerous torrent, most recently in August, 2011 when Hurricane Irene dropped almost 3.5 inches of rain in Burlington during 24 hours.

John and Nancy Hayden, owners of The Farm Beyond on the edge of Jeffersonville, Vermont, right across State Route 15 from the river, saw the Lamoille rise until it flooded the highway and coursed onto their land, flooding some of their outbuildings and vegetable crops. Fortunately for them, they designed their farm with some forethought about weather extremes (they met at Syracuse University, taking environmental science courses) and life returned to normal after the waters receded. For many farmers, however, it was a wake up call about neglecting nature.

John grew up on Long Island and ever since being a kid was involved in nature and ecology.

Potted pollinator bushes, hooop houses, fruit trees, etc.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Scene of the farmyard from the house shows some of the couople’s potted pollinator plants, hoop houses, and fruit trees.

“My earliest memories,” he recalls, “are me out in the back yard on my knees looking at ants – just being fascinated by them. After college I joined the Peace Corps and went to Mali. They put me in agriculture because I’d studied entomology. That’s when I fell in love with agriculture.

“I saw how pesticides are being abused there,” he continues. “They didn’t really have pest problems, but the farmers were given the chemicals and equipment anyway, with no safety concerns. They were using stuff way more powerful than any problems they had.”

Nancy joined the Peace Corps and went to Kenya, so they had a long distance love relationship in Africa with letters and an occasional visit. Upon returning to the States they got married and John went to Michigan State Ag School, where he got a masters in entomology while Nancy got her PhD in Environmental Engineering.

“I worked there six years,” Hayden explains, “doing research and working with the Extension Service on Integrated Pest Management. But thirty years ago, in the Extension service, people only knew a little bit about bees. I felt I was working within a system that needed more than tweaking, so when Nancy was offered a job here at the University of Vermont 25 years ago I decided to try to do something myself as a farmer.”

The couple bought a farmhouse on 18 open acres of what had been a large dairy farm. Having been hayed without much reinvestment ever since the dairy went out of business, it was all in reed canary grass and the soil was in pretty bad shape.

“So we transitioned,” John relates. “We’re really interested in healing the land. We’ve been working on it for 25 years, trying to come up with a model that is ecologically sound and economically viable. The idea of Regenerative Agriculture – sequestering carbon, cleaning the water, enhancing our soils, creating biodiversity – is interesting to me.”

The pair decided to start with livestock. They raised a thousand meat birds a year, had a 50 ewe flock of sheep and were raising heifers, rabbits, pigs, 200 laying hens, turkeys. Their manure and grazing was great for bringing fertility back to the land and knocked the reed canary grass into just the wet areas.

The Haydens also raised 4 kids there, two ‘homemade’ boys and two adopted girls.

“Then as our kids got older and fertility came back,” Hayden recalls, “we started planting vegetables. We had a 24 member CSA, opened a farm stand. But the vegetables were a lot of hard work and we were getting older. And everything with them was urgent!

“So we got more into fruit,” he continues. “We think a lot about resilience here – how are we going to handle the different stresses: climate change, flooding issues? The river is across the road. We ended up doing 8 years with livestock, 8 years with vegetables, and now 8 years with fruit.”

It took Nancy’s job to pay for the mortgage, get health care and raise the 4 kids. But now she has left her job and the farm is their entire income. They are growing more and more fruit and have started an extensive nursery. They like growing stuff, they say, and are just trying to keep the quality of life they like!

John’s early fascination with insects has never left him, however.

“We had this realization about 8 or 10 years ago,” he says, “that the pollinators were declining mostly the native bees. We’d go into a field in the seasons prior to that and we’d hear all this buzzing. But then it was just a buzz here and there. So we thought: ‘we should start being more proactive in planting crops and building habitat for pollinators’. So we have been doing that.

“We don’t use chemicals,” he continues, “even organic ones. Entrust, from Dow, for instance, is highly toxic to pollinators. Just because it is organic doesn’t mean it won’t wreak havoc on your ecosystem. I think their decline is because of all the chemicals around us plus the others stresses on them. Fungicides are harmful to bees. The neonic pesticides are really bad for the environment, plus diseases and viruses and parasites like nosema. So first off, put away the pesticides.

“Another thing is to plant floral resources,” he concludes, “so they have food throughout the whole season. You want to have as many different things blooming at different times as you can. Also you want to create nesting habitats. A lot of people, when they think of habitats, think of hives. But there are a lot of different bees and they like different habitats. That is definitely a limiting factor. I am doing research with a SARE farmer grant right now on trying to create various types of habitats. There are various types of bees, social and solitary, and they all have different nesting needs.”

Solitary Bees

Solitary bees, Hayden explains, do not swarm, form colonies, produce honey, or have a queen. Each female lays eggs but does not tend them through growth. Most nest underground, but some nest in above ground structures like trees. They do not produce wax, instead constructing cells of mud or other materials. They feed on nectar for their energy, but collect pollen for protein needed by the brood, mixing it with a small bit of nectar and packing it into a cell before laying an egg in it. They do not have pollen baskets, as honeybees do, so lose more pollen than social bees. This, however, makes them excellent pollinators. A single red mason bee, for instance, is equal to over 100 honeybees in pollination services.

Mason Bees

John has built a number of orchard, or Mason, bee houses. The bee is native to North America, with an Eastern sub-species and a Western sub-species. (There are mason bee varieties all around the world, though.) Mason Bee houses are essentially a protected group of tubes. The adults will emerge in the spring, collect pollen, make a ball of it in a tube like a large drinking straw, and lay an egg in it. (In nature, of course, they might use hollow stems of plants instead of straws.) Then they will seal the opening with mud and make another one. They do this down through the whole straw so there are six or seven eggs in the straw. Each bee will fill several straws. The eggs develop in their cocoon and spend most of the summer as larvae. In the fall they pupate, undergo metamorphosis, and in the spring come out of their tubes.

The adults only live 4 to 6 weeks. The bees determine whether an egg will be a male or female the fertilized ones are the females and the unfertilized ones are male. Female eggs are laid farthest back in the tube, with the drones toward the front. The ratio is about 50/50 male and female. The drones emerge first and wait around to fertilize the females.

Their nest has to be within 100 yards or so from the plants you want them to pollinate, but they are much better pollinators than honeybees. They fly in cooler weather, are out earlier for things like cherries and plums, and visit more flowers – something like 12 times more flowers. Nobody has researched if these bees communicate as to where a good pollen source is, although John suspects they do.

The USDA is helping him put out the orchard bee nest boxes on different orchards and farms around the state. They are trying to find out what native bee populations are around.

Ground Nesting Bees

Ground bee trial

photo by Jack Kittredge
Ground bee trial shows tent which can be placed over the constructed bee nest (holes in ground in metal collar), flowering branches which are placed in water for bee fodder, and sandy bed for bee nests.

Hayden is also doing research on ground nesting bees. They have the same kind of solitary bee life cycle as the mason bees do – feeding on a little nectar for them but pollen for the brood but lay their eggs in holes in the ground. They like a sloping south-facing sandy soil and will make little tunnels coming off of these holes, laying an egg in each one.

John is testing three variants of ground nests for them. The first is simply holes in the ground, the second involves a little tent over the holes in which he keeps the bees in for a day, and in the third he keeps the bees for three days.

“These are called cellophane or plaster bees,” he explains. “That is because they line their nests with a clear cellophany material. It makes them waterproof and maybe keeps ants out. The genus is ‘colletes’. They are good at all the early season fruit. In the tents I have some early blossoms here in water, for food for them.

“I made these holes,” he continues, “and I’m seeing what the bees are doing. I put the bucket here to protect them from ants. Our soil here is more silty than sandy, so I dug this areas out for a couple of feet and brought in sand. The others use our soil. That is one of the things we are finding out, how well can you create sandy soils for this purpose. I’m excited to see there is some fresh digging besides my holes. I caught individual adults and brought them here in a container and released them for each trial.

“Here is the third progression of these ground nests,” he concludes. “In this one I caught 20 adults, kept them here for three days under that net, providing early box elder and willow blossoms. We are trying to find the way that works to encourage them with the least amount of effort on our part. We are starting to see some holes. We will have an idea if any of these really work by next spring. To do actual research we will replicate them and try them on different farms.”

Social Bees

Social bees like honey bees and bumble bees of course work together. There are many types and they have various behaviors, but generally there is one queen who is tended and produces eggs for the colony, with workers and drones serving her needs. Honeybees are the primary example of social bees. They are good pollinators for some things John feels – cucubits and, on a nice day, apples. But for blueberries, forget it! Their tongues aren’t long enough to get in the flower well. If there is not much else around they will force themselves to do it. But native bees do most of the work on blueberries.

“I love honeybees,” he says. “We have a lot of hives and I like the honey. But when people say ‘Save the bees’ they are automatically thinking honeybees. That’s like me saying to you: ‘We have to save the birds. Let’s start with chickens!’ Chickens and honey bees are domesticated animals, not even from around here.”

Bumble Bees

photo by Jack Kittredge
The Hayden’s farm sign is about the only advertising they need. The nurserey business is growing by 50% per year.

Bumble bee queens are mated at the end of the season. They overwinter in the ground or in hollow, rotting barns or trees and emerge in the spring with a lot of work to do  to find a suitable nest site, collect pollen, lay eggs, brood those eggs by keeping them warm, all while foraging back and forth all by herself for 22 days until the first workers hath out. At the end of the season the colony sends out a bunch of virgin queens and drones. They mate and the queens will then find a place to overwinter – a compost pile or whatever.

“We make these things,” Hayden says, “called ‘bumble-cultures’ — places where they can tuck their way in and be safe. We use the name because it is similar to ‘hugelkultur’. They are raised beds for growing which are attractive to bumblebees. We overwinter some plants in a trench, fill it in with branches, and it will become attractive to bumblebees as it decomposes. It has lots of nooks and crannies for the queen and we plant a lot of pollinator plants in it. We have five species of native bumblebee here on the property.”

Pollinator Plants

One of the things that the Haydens pay special attention to is raising fodder for pollinators. Without continuous sources of pollen and nectar throughout the season, of ocurse, bees can easily starve.

“This is our pollinator sanctuary — the whole farm is really one,” John gestures at various plants as we walk. “These go from the willow, which is very early, to Witch Hazel, which blooms in October or November. These are honeyberries. They are early bloomers. Cedar waxwings love them and we have to cover them. The fruit is a little tart, but makes a good flavor. We have been experimenting with sunflowers for cover crops. They are late and given that most everything is getting earlier because of climate change, sunflowers are a crucial crop for late pollinators. Jerusalem artichokes are late, and witch hazel is really late.

Dwarf organic apples in hoophouse

photo by Jack Kittredge Dwarf organic apple trees growing in the hoop house.

“We try to raise a lot of things that are good sources for native bees,” he continues. “We like edible landscaping, so we use a lot of fruits. We like the native fruits, and the bees love them. This is aronia. We love it. We blend it with apple cider – 20% aronia juice. They aren’t that sweet but blended with a sweet source they add a lot of flavor. These are native plums. They are very early. These are willows, among the first to flower. Here are box elders, an early flowering tree. We plant them and use them for wood chips for mulching. It’s a way to collect carbon while providing habitat to birds and pollinators. Every farm should have a wild, biodiverse area! We also have a lot of heirloom fruit we are putting in. We have a lot of trees and bushes planted  black walnuts, black locusts, hawthorns, for wildlife and pollinators. Black locusts are great for pollinators and the flowers are edible. We make syrups from it. We love black locusts!

“We have 7 different varieties of elderberry we are trialing,” he concludes. “We plant more and more elderberries. This field used to flood all the time. So we decided to put something in here that could withstand the flooding. These are beach plums. They are a great fruit for processing, and it is a good early pollinator plant. It will flower here in early May. A lot of the annuals have longer flowering periods, but perennial fruits have a short burst of a week or 10 days and then they are done. Pussy willows are flowering now. They like wet spots. They just grow into shrubs, not trees. Bayberries are a nitrogen-fixing flowering shrub that is good for pollinators. We do a lot with black currants. We make a cover crop mix with an annual sweet clover we like. That is our riparian zone. A lot of farmers will try to keep such a flowage or ditch clean. We did for a while. But then we realized that was crazy. We let the trees that grow well there survive. We’re trying to get people to ‘celebrate scruffy’ a little more!”

John holds Mason bee from nest

photo by Jack Kittredge
John holds a dead Mason bee that was killed before emerging from it’s cell.

In order to have this wealth of pollinator plants, John and Nancy have developed a considerable nursery containing perennial seedling trees and bushes. They raise fruit trees, native bushes, and pollinator plants – for all of which there is a developing market. John grafts scion wood onto bought root stock. He likes doing a cleft graft if the sizes are quite different, and a whip and tongue if the root stock is small enough to be still flexible. The nursery has been going for three years now and it is up to about a third of the farm’s income.

“We don’t advertise it,” Hayden readily admits. “We like to be a small scale operation. But we have stuff that you can’t easily find elsewhere. We’re growing the business by about 50% a year – we can hardly keep up right now.”

Of course much of the fruit grown on their trees and bushes ends up in products sold by The Farm Between. They are growing thirty different kinds of fruit and particularly like black currants, which grow well for them.

“They are pest free,” says John, “and make a delicious berry. We use it for a syrup with a real complex taste. We have a steam juicer to extract the flavor and go to the farmers market in Burlington with an ice chipper and make snow cones with black currant syrup. We can sell 300 snow cones in a day.”

John and Nancy with black currant plants

photo by Jack Kittredge
Nancy and John stand in front of some of their many black currant plants. They extract the black current juice using a steam process and make a delicious syrup from it ideal for pancakes.

The couple is planning to turn four greenhouses over to tree fruit this year. They want to grow organic apples with no spray practices, so keeping the rain off them is priority number one, making sure they don’t get apple scab. So they are growing some dwarf apples in a hoop house. The insects haven’t found them yet even though they didn’t even screen the sides! Currently they are growing Honeycrisp, Empire, and IdaRed trees, from which they got huge perfect apples last year. Now they are going to expand into stone fruit, using drip irrigation.

“We haven’t done the numbers to see what the economics might be,” sighs John. “The greenhouse was here already. But it does provide protection for late frost and hail. Native pollinators are working fine here. We also have a high density pear planting. We’re trying to create a pear hedge. People do it with apples on dwarfing rootstocks, but we don’t have posts to support it. We try to do the minimum we can and get away with it.”

Given the amount of knowledge John and Nancy have about ecology, it is not surprising that they are devoting more and more of their time to educating others. They do on farm workshops about Farming on the Wild Side and Pollinator Advocacy already, and John is doing a two-day session with Michael Phillips this year.

“As we get older it seems more important,” he asserts. “We have a vision for a Care Center at our farm stand where you can see posters, play with live caterpillars of Monarch butterflies, and look at observation hives for both honeybees and bumblebees that open up and show you how pollinators live. We’re going to open it to the public and do a lot of signage. We have a non-profit and some people who are interested in helping out.”

We’ve Got Our Policy Work Cut Out For Us

Thanks to an outpouring of support from Members responding to the End of the Year policy funding appeal, the NOFA Interstate Policy Program is alive and functioning, albeit on a part time basis. More support is needed, however, as you’ll see below.

Trump Agenda
Now that we’ve gotten an all-too-clear look at the details of the Administration’s and Congress’ self-serving political agendas – it’s plain to see that much of what NOFA has stood for and worked on since our beginnings in the early 1970’s is under full frontal assault. Many hard fought advances in organic and sus-tainable agriculture, good food availability, environmental protection, health care, climate stability, social justice, and personal freedom are now targeted by a slew of special interests who are now powerfully placed at the top.

Clearly we have our work cut out for us – but we are not alone. As a founding member of the National Organic Coalition, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Northeast Sustainable Working Group – NOFA is working regionally and nationally in combination with Chapter work in our seven states. NOFA-IC also recently strategically broadened our affiliations – becoming a member of the newly-formed Organic Farming Association, the National Family Farm Coalition and the HEAL Food Alliance.

The good news is that huge numbers of citizens across the country are roused to resist and reverse these mean-spirited top-down initiatives. Fact is, under our government’s built-in separation of powers those signed Executive Orders are just piles of paper until they can be implemented and/or funded by Congress and carried out by agencies.

Thanks to the 2015 and 2016 policy grants from Farm Aid, our Chapters are building effective working relationships with their Congressional delegations. And here in the Northeast, anyway, many Members are not only really listening for once but are looking for support and alliances with activated concerned citizens.

What we can do
This is where NOFA members come in as we put together a coordinated resistance to the agendas. As one of the oldest organic food and farming organizations in the country, NOFA has earned the public’s trust in leading the way forward. Same as feeding your children and weeding your garden — supporting our state NOFA Chapters, participating in policy alerts and calling your elected officials needs to be on your regular to-do list.

Additional support is also needed for Interstate NOFA Policy. Due to retrenchments from some of our traditional business supporters – the current Policy Coor-dinator compensation only covers 13 hours/week, although the workload remains just as heavy. And although much of the policy work takes place by email and conference call – travel costs to Capitol Hill fly-ins and face-to-face national coalition meetings around the country have increased significantly.

Thank you for considering an individual contribution – we appreciate member support of our important policy work!! If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation please write your checks to the NOFA Interstate Council c/o Treasurer Julie Rawson, 411 Sheldon Road, Barre, MA 01005.