University of Maine Ph.D. candidate Brianne Du Clos has spent a lot of time chasing after Maine’s bees. She’s getting ready to wrap up her doctoral work this fall, but first, she’ll be helping wild blueberry farmers navigate a new tool called BeeMapper she created to help them with their pollination management plans. To find out what that means and how the tool works, we called her up and learned a few other things about her along the way, including what she’s allergic to and what piece of Maine she never wants to be without.

START UP: Du Clos’ project was part of a five-year University of Maine project that began in 2012, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop initiative grant to help the wild blueberry growers. The Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions contributed $40,000 to help fund Du Clos’ work. The idea behind BeeMapper is to allow farmers to predict how much help they’ll get from native bees in pollinating millions of low bush wild Maine blueberries. She started on the BeeMapper tool in November of 2014, came up with a prototype, tested it with a small group of growers during the 2015 growing season, then refined and tested again in 2016. “I naively thought when I announced it, I would get it done in a year.” It was officially unveiled last week at the University of Maine’s blueberry research farm in Jonesboro, although Du Clos expects it’s going to get its most serious use in January, when growers are making their pollination management plans, i.e., figuring out how many hives of honey bees they’ll need to bring in.

LOCAL BEES ARE BETTER: The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine estimates a billion bees are brought into the state annually for blueberry pollination. But wild bees play a major role in pollination as well. There are 276 species of wild bees found in Maine, 14 of which are quite common. Du Clos and another graduate student colleague did some extensive research in the blueberry fields of Maine and recorded more than 120 of those species buzzing around. “Our wild bees love wild blueberries.” And they do a better job than the imported honey bees. “They are actually better pollinators. They are able to buzz pollinate.” (Grabbing on to the flower and vibrating, so the pollen shakes out.) “They know how work that kind of flower.”

THE REPLACEMENTS? Are there enough wild bees to get the job done? “Wild bees alone would not be able to provide the services that the honey bees provide.” But with the commercial beekeeping industry struggling with parasites and colonies dying off, wild bees are a vital cog in the wheel. “Anything we can do to increase reliance on wild bees is a boost to the ecosystem,” Du Clos says.

MAPPING BEE TERRITORY: BeeMapper is built on three deeply researched areas: what the land cover looks like, i.e., wetland, urban and developed, forested, agricultural; habitat suitability values for bees; and information about the bees themselves, including their geographic range. Maine’s most far-ranging wild bees don’t travel more than a half mile to look for food. “Most of them are going well under a quarter mile.” All this data is configured in geographical areas. It’s static – in other words, it doesn’t reflect actual bee movements, but rather, makes predictions for a typical growing season, with pie charts predicting wild bee abundance. It helps nail down what has been a somewhat ephemeral component of farming operations; how many wild bees are out there and will they show up? “This tool gives them the connection between the landscape and the wild bees.”

A PLANT PERSON: Du Clos did her undergraduate work in biology at a branch of the University of Wisconsin that she described as like the “Fort Kent” of Wisconsin, her home state. She grew up in La Crosse with a mother who “kicked me outside at 10 in the morning and didn’t let me in until 5 p.m.” She came to Maine to study landscape ecology, with no expectations of studying pollinators. “I was always a plant person. I never wanted to study things that moved.” But the opportunity to work with the wild blueberry ecosystem was too tempting to resist. “It is such a cornerstone of Maine’s economy, which relates to the bigger issue of food security. So many of our most nutritious foods are pollinated by bees, and keeping those crops vibrant is so important.”

POWER LINES: BeeMapper is merely one of three chapters in her dissertation. The others are a survey of bee communities and a study of power lines as a source for bee habitat. Say what? “If you look at a map of Maine, it is really forested.” (Maine is usually ranked in the top three states in the nation for percentage of forested land.) “There’s not a lot of habitat for bees. But if you look at Google Earth you see these long straight lines cut through the forest for the power lines.” She researched bee populations in these strips. “I did a vegetation survey. There are tons of flowers in these lines and tons of wild bees. It is like an early successional forest.” (That is, a forest in the years immediately after clear-cutting.)

THE PRICE OF RESEARCH: Du Clos’ bee research has taken her all over the midcoast and Down East Maine. She wears a head net at all times. While she’s not allergic to bee stings, she is “unpleasantly allergic” to wasps. How many times have her subjects stung her? Surprisingly rarely, in part because, as she notes, the solitary bees you might see working your flower garden do not sting. Bumblebees do, though. “I have been stung twice by bumblebees.” Once was by an orange-banded bumblebee she’d stepped on. “The other time I had a bee in a net, and she did not like that.”

BEYOND PIE CHARTS: With all the time she’s spent thinking about getting Maine’s wild blueberries pollinated, she’s ended up with a deep fondness for the tiny berry. And some recipes. “I make a mean blueberry pie.”

FUTURE PLANS? Is Du Clos going to stick around? She thinks job prospects, or rather, the lack of them locally, will take her out of the state. “It is kind of a bummer.” She suspects she’ll end up working in some other region with some other food specialty that relies on wild pollinators. “I hope wherever I wind up, I am always going to have a bag of wild blueberries in my freezer.”

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