Eric Venturini is an assistant research scientist at the University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology, pursuing his love of sustainable agriculture through research into bees and collaborations with farmers. We encountered him while Source was trying to track down the most recent specimen of rusty patched bumblebee (see S1) in the Maine State Museum archives. Venturini has spent a lot of time in those archives recently, looking for clues about the present-day plight of pollinators in the bodies of their ancestors.
We called him up to talk about that and much more, including the role a day of processing chickens played in getting him into bee research.
FLIGHT PATHS: In the middle of the drought that made the 2016 growing season so tough for Maine farmers, Venturini and colleagues happened to be out collecting bumblebees for a statewide assessment. They were looking at the effects habitat and pesticide residues have on native bee populations, but it was hard not to notice that many of the worker bumblebees seemed smaller than usual.
That got Venturini wondering what role drought might play in the size of bees. So he’s looking back in the archives, along with a work study student who will be measuring bees from the past, including from other drought years, for comparison. It stands to reason that in a dry year there might be less to nourish a bumblebee.
“Plants need water in order to produce nectar. I’m thinking that the drought this year may have caused plants to shut down their nectar flow.” That’s his working hypothesis, which he’s looking to prove.
BETWEEN THE WINGS: How does one measure a bee? By measuring the intertegular span, “basically the distance between the shoulder blades, so to speak, or between the attachments of their wings.”
Last year Venturini was down at the archives on a different project, working on a database oriented toward finding a timeline for bee activity, much of which has been subject to numerical and geographic shifts in populations. As native species decline, records of when they were still buzzing around are key. “So we could inform the management of the wild bees.”
BEE BALM: Venturini recently started a side business, Grow Wild Bees, offering consulting services to growers who want to enhance native bee populations. Were bees always his thing? Not at all, initially. When he arrived at UMaine from his home state of Pennsylvania, he was interested in fisheries biology. As an undergraduate, he majored in environmental sciences.
Right out of college in 2006, he landed a job as a technician at a bioscience institute in Northern Ireland, working on the connection between water quality and species diversity. “Basically my job was to go around and gill net fish out of lakes.” That’s the method of suspending a meshed net vertically in the water; the fish can pass through the net but its gills catch when it tries to pull out. “I think we did probably 30 lakes.”
Among the job perks: “I saw more interesting parts of Ireland just by knocking on all of these farmers’ doors and asking if we could gill net their lakes, or more often, their ponds.”
ALL AROUND THE WORLD: From Ireland, Venturini moved on to Alaska, where he worked on a harbor seal project in Glacier Bay National Park for a summer, then he signed on as an official observer on commercial fishing vessels. That’s a contract job that feeds data on fishing boats to the National Marine Services Fisheries. Wait, isn’t that the gig that means you’re automatically the most disliked person on a boat? (No fisherman wants to be watched.) “That is part of it, unfortunately.” He surveyed boats long-line fishing for cod and pollock and some trawlers as well. Then he went on to Hawaii, where he did similar work on vessels fishing for tuna and swordfish.
ALOHA?: If you’re guessing that such work would be more fun in Hawaii, you’d be wrong, Alaska gets Venturini’s nod. “I mean it was certainly cold and you didn’t just hang out on deck the way you did on the Hawaiian fishing boats. But some of the fishing boats in Hawaii were really quite horrible.” As in living conditions. “Some of these boats were just full of cockroaches and bedbugs were pretty common.” The trips were usually four weeks long. “It was a little isolating, but you read a lot of good books and you’re seeing some amazing things. It was worth it.”
ON THE FARM: Venturini began exploring other interests and spent some time working on small organic farms through the WWOOF program, which connects volunteer farmworkers with host farms. These included a vegetable farm and an aquaponics operation in Hawaii, and a farm in Oregon. “They grew a little bit of everything: ducks, goats, geese. I harvested duck eggs and grew stuff for market, and I decided I wanted to kind of shift direction so that eventually I could be involved in sustainable agriculture in some way, shape or form.” When his wife got into a Ph.D. program at UMaine, they headed here.
HAPPY ACCIDENT: While he was exploring possible graduate programs himself, he was invited to a party thrown by a professor who needed some help processing chickens. “Basically it was a trade. You would butcher chickens and get to take some chickens home.” Another professor, Frank Drummond, insect ecologist and UMaine’s resident bee expert, was a guest as well. “So I met Frank while we were both slaughtering chickens.” As they shared the tasks, they talked about their interests and found they intersected in many areas.
With Drummond’s encouragement, he enrolled in and finished a master’s program at UMaine, focusing on the relationship between pollinators and key Maine crops, such as wild blueberries and apples. “Most of my master’s work really focused on testing these mixtures of flowering plants and what impact they had on pollination services. Basically, I was trying to find ways that a grower could manage the wild bee population.”
SIDE GIG: Encouraging that native population is key to his new side job at Grow Wild Bees. It’s for any grower, farmer or home gardener who wants to increase their visits from bees, “whether it is for a purely conservation reason or trying to boost their bottom line.”
BOTTOMS UP: What Venturini encourages are self-seeding native plantings that unfold, or last, throughout an entire season. Build a garden, or what Venturini calls a “pollination reservoir,” and the bumblebees will come. But be patient. “The flowers may take two or three years before they start to bloom and then the bees themselves are not going to really build their population numbers within that same year. So it is a long-term, ongoing management plan.” With yields. If it is your goal to have more tomatoes or bigger tomatoes, without bringing in any non-native honey bees, “bumblebees are your ticket.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: