Yesterday morning, I was picking raspberries from the small planting in the front yard of our house. At first, I didn’t notice the multitude of bumblebees on the flowers, because they were so quiet. I don’t know if they were actively collecting pollen and nectar from the many-pistiled flowers, or if they were coming to the end of their season. Only the queen survives the winter. But I felt an unexpected tenderness for these fuzzy invertebrates. And gratitude. Without bees and other pollinators, much of the food we grow at the farm would not come to fruition.
Honeybees are in the spotlight because of their plight with Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated many hives and directly affected honey producers and farmers who rely on honeybees to pollinate crops. As with many serious illnesses, there is likely a web of direct and indirect causes. Pesticide exposure is clearly one (you can read this nice article from the Boston Globe magazine if you’d like to learn more. )
The perils may be greater but less understood for native bees. Like many of our beloved agricultural species, honeybees were brought to America and are not native to this place. However, there are approximately 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Over 80 species of bees pollinate berry crops in Maine and Massachusetts! This nearly overwhelming diversity of wild creatures directly supports our designed farm ecosystem. In turn, we must make a place for these wild citizens in our farm.
Native bees often do a better job of pollinating crop plants than do honeybees. For example, native bees increase the yield of cherry tomatoes. Although self-fertile, tomatoes cross-pollinated by bees produce more fruit. To release pollen, the flower must be vibrated at a specific frequency. Honeybees cannot do this, but a suite of native bees has the right vibration, an ability called ‘buzz pollination.’ How cool is that?
Bees need flowering plants throughout the growing season, nesting habitat, and are sensitive to pesticides. Many native bees are in decline because of habitat loss and pesticide exposure. We could do more to enhance flower resources and habitat for bees at our farm, but our hedgerows, flower plantings, and organic practices go a long way to creating conditions for these insects to thrive. Our you-pick flower and herb plantings are for your enjoyment and use, and also provide a variety of flowers throughout the season for pollinators. The hedgerows across the farm provide food and nesting habitat. Although our farm is in a residential area, the Mill River Conservation Area and well-loved flower gardens of many of our neighbors help too.
It isn’t only for our needs that we care about native bees. This is their world too, and they belong here. It is near the end of the season for many of these creatures, and I hope you will join me in wishing them every success as they prepare for winter.