It’s time to consider the plight of pollinators, particularly bees.

In late February, back when people were still allowed to gather in large groups, I attended an all-day re-certification workshop for licensed pesticide applicators. I am not a licensed pesticide applicator, but the event was sponsored by the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association, of which I am a member, and it had some interesting topics – including state apiarist Jennifer Lund’s talk “All about Bees.”

Then COVID-19 hit, and I forgot about the bees until I got a notification from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, of which I am also a member, about how to support native pollinators in Maine.

Yes, pandemic or no, pollinators are still vital and always will be. Seventy-five percent of flowering plants depend on insects for pollination, according to Lund. Flies and beetles do pollinate, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Hymenoptera, an insect class with 150,000 species, bees and wasps among them.

Maine has 276 species of native bees. Honeybees (originally from Europe) aren’t one of them, though they seem to get all the publicity. Bumble bees, which are fairly large, very hairy and brightly colored, with yellow, white, black, orange and red markings, are among the easiest of Maine’s many species to spot. The state has 17 species of bumblebee. Among the first bees to emerge in the spring, bumblebees are not fussy eaters, feeding spring, summer and fall on just about anything that is in blossom.

The bumblebee queen emerges in the spring, creates a nest in a cavity, such as an old mouse burrow, lays eggs and never leaves the nest. She has a couple hundred roommates, all of whom will die the following winter – leaving only the eggs of drones and potential queens alive.

Other native bees include mason, leafcutter, sweat, miner and sand bees. All are pollinators.

Most bees won’t sting people unless threatened. Even bees that nest in sand traps at golf courses usually leave golfers alone when they walk in to make their shots. You can help sand-nesting bees by leaving some bare ground on your property.

Lund confirmed what you have probably been reading about for several years: overall, bees are doing poorly, with populations in decline. She listed some of the many, varied threats that they face.

Maine has more forests than it used to, with many abandoned farms reverting to forest. Forests are not friendly to bees.

Climate change causes many problems for bees, such as these two: Goldenrod blossoms have one-third less protein than they used to, making the plants less nutritious for the bees, a decline Lund attributed to the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Climate change causes more heavy rains, which can drown ground-nesting bees.

Honeybee populations especially, but other bees, too, have been decimated by mites, specifically the varroa mite.

Then we come to pesticides, and here is where Lund and MOFGA split. To be certified organic by MOFGA, farmers and gardeners may not use synthetic pesticides. That recent mailing from MOFGA asked members to sign a petition requesting the state ban neonicotinoid pesticides. These are chemicals in which the poison is drawn up into a plant, so that insects digesting any parts of that plant die. Scientists have been studying the effects of neonicotinoid on bees for many years, and MOFGA contends it kills bees.

But state regulations are based on the principle that pesticides improve the production of both agricultural and horticultural plants. If applied properly, the state contends, the pesticides will not significantly harm people or the environment, including beneficial insects such as bees. To get a certification that allows them to apply pesticides on property they don’t own, applicators are required to take courses and pass a test.

Highly simplified, the rules are: Do not apply pesticide unless you know which pests are there. Do not spray in anticipation – because, for example, you are afraid ticks might show up. Never spray near flowers. Spray early in the morning or in the evening, when bees are less likely to be flying. Apply only the recommended amounts of pesticide.

But homeowners don’t need to be certified to spray pesticides on their own property. They are supposed to read and follow the labels. Most don’t, which is where many problems come in. My advice? If you really need pesticides, hire a certified pro, and get it done correctly.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for a good project for this spring while you are stuck at home respecting physical-distancing orders, spend time making your yard bee-friendly. Here are the basics:

• Have at least three different species of plants in blossom at all times. Native plants are best but well-behaved imports are OK, Lund said. Plant clumps of the same species close together because bees have to relearn how to extract pollen and nectar each time they approach a plant, so clumps are more efficient for them. Different bees like flowers of different heights and different shapes, so plant a wide variety of plants.

• Don’t be too neat. Bumblebees like to nest under clumps of grass. Other bees live in dead trees and branches; if your yard has snags (dead branches leaning or lying on the ground) in a place where they pose no danger to the family, let them stand.

Despite the pandemic, most plant nurseries are open. Phone in your order, pay ahead by credit card, and you can pick up your bee-friendly plants, including seeds and pollinator-friendly annuals. The UMaine Cooperative Extension highly recommends tubular-flowered plants in the mint family, such as oregano, catmint, sage and lavender, as well as flat-flowered plants in the Aster family, such as sunflowers and other daisies.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about garden projects for children during the pandemic and I suggested, among other things, that they build homes for bees. That project doesn’t require children. Have some fun on your own.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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