By Daymond Steer
JACKSON — Native pollinators and honey bees face many challenges — from disappearing habitats to pesticides — but there are steps people can take to help, from planting a flower garden to simply letting some dandelions grow in the yard.
So said Olivia Saunders of University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, who gave a talk May 24 at the Jackson Public Library ahead of National Pollinator Week.
Saunders has a bachelor's degree in environmental studies from UNH and master's in soil science from Washington State University. She has worked for the Cooperative Extension since 2013, focusing on soil health; efficiencies in small-scale fruit and vegetable production in a northern climate; Master Gardeners; new and beginner farmers; and beekeeping and native pollinators. She received the 2016 Achievement Award from the National Association of County Agriculture Agents and is a 2017-19 Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education fellow.
Her talk came on the heels of a report from the New Hampshire Beekeepers Association, saying Granite State beekeepers lost an average of 65 percent of its beehives over the winter. The survey was conducted between Oct. 1, 2016, and March 31 and covered 130 New Hampshire towns. The hive count fell from 1,004 in October to 350 in April. Around 45 percent of beekeepers didn't know why the hives were lost, though mites were one reason that was given.
Honey bees are from Europe and are kept by beekeepers. But New England has over 200 other bee species and a host of other native pollinators like moths and butterflies.
Because pollinators are so important, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of the Interior designated June 19-25 as National Pollinator Week, a celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats, and beetles.
According to a release from UNH, "The abundance of and diversity of pollinators are declining in many agricultural landscapes across the United States. Given this importance, widespread declines in pollinator diversity have led to concern about a global pollinator crisis. The National Research Council has called for regional, national, and international monitoring programs to allow tracking the status and trends of pollinators."
Even though honey bees are less ambitious than other types of bees, like bumble bees, becoming a honey beekeeper helps the environment through pollination of plants and by raising pollinator awareness, said Saunders. Luckily, she said, beekeeping is "hugely popular right now."
Saunders works with the Winnipesaukee Beekeepers Association, which meets in Tuftonboro, though she said there are probably enough beekeepers in the Conway area to have a club there, too.
UNH has gotten into studying native bees and a professor, Sandra Rehan, is dedicated to doing just that. Last year, Rehan conducted the first bee assessment of the state's native bee population.
"Our bee collection efforts recorded 118 species, more than a quarter of the species currently present in the Northeast, if not more considering recent bee declines," said Rehan in a 2016 article on UNH's website.
Rehan is hosting a "Bioblitz" at the Ossipee Pine Barrens from June 23-25 in which bee enthusiasts will be collecting bees.
"The goals of the Bee Bioblitz are to document the diversity of bee species in the state, with a particular focus on native bees; connect bee researchers across New England; and demonstrate bee surveys and research techniques to interested members of the public and students," a UNH press release explains.
During last month's talk at Jackson Library, Saunders estimated there are over 200 bee species in New England. She said honey bees can fly two miles, but native bees, which are more solitary and live in smaller groups, can fly only about 1,000 feet. These species may nest underground or in funnel -shaped hives.
Saunders listed several factors why pollinating insects are struggling. One is the "fragmentation of the landscape" by human development.
"If you are a bee, you are looking for nectar, you are looking for pollen, and you are looking for a nesting site, and you are looking for a mate, and if you live in this landscape it can be quite difficult," said Saunders, pointing to a photo of a city.
Adult bees eat nectar while the bees need pollen to feed their brood.
"We had super good pollen year last year," said Saunders. But "going into the fall there was no nectar because it didn't rain."
Another challenge: the elimination of weeds in fields that bees like to visit. Wild meadows and ponds are less common than they used to be.
"Farmers across the country have worked to correct this — especially in New Hampshire," said Saunders, adding New England is better off than other states that have huge corn and soy fields.
In New Hampshire, the bigger issue is that forest has replaced fields. Also, pesticides can drift from one property to another.
"If you are beekeeper, and you have a hive next to somebody who may be spraying, we always encourage people to go talk to your neighbor, tell them you have bees and maybe trade them honey for keeping dandelions on their lawn," said Saunders. "Dandelions are pretty important."
Saunders said last year's drought impacted nectar production, which may have been a factor in how bees not making it through the winter. A 65 percent loss rate, she said, is "clearly unsustainable."
She added that a lot of people are trying beekeeping for the first time and new beekeepers lose hives at a faster rate than more experienced beekeepers. She said there is a big learning curve and it's important to have a mentor.
One thing that residents can do to help their six-legged friends is create a pollinator garden that has flowers in bloom from May to October so the bees can feed all growing season and store enough food for the winter. She said they need food, forage and nesting areas.
The Cooperative Extension has been developing guides for homeowners and farmers on establishing pollinator gardens. Saunders normally works with commercial farmers, and doesn't do home visits. But the Extension Service does have Master Gardeners who provide assistance to the homeowner audience.
"There's a lot we can do with our backyards and our managed landscapes," said Saunders.
The home base for the Bioblitz will be the Tamworth Camping Area. Permits are required for collecting so attendees should contact Rehan if they are interested in participating. While the event is free, there are fees associated with lodging and meals.
Collecting dates: June 24 and June 25 (special arrangements can be made to collect before or after these dates). The general public will be invited to collect both days
Processing date: June 25. at the Tamworth Camping area Recreation Barn.
They will have a group to help with the identification of the bees. Following the processing, labeled specimen will be distributed to museums and interested parties. They also plan to have microscopes set-up for learning bee identification workshops, demonstrations and lectures will also be scheduled.
The Extension Service website offers useful information: extension.unh.edu/Sustainable-Landscapes-and-Turf/Wildflower-Meadows.
For more information about the Bioblitz visit unhbeelab.com/bioblitz.html.