Bringing bees back

Colony collapse disorder is changing everything.

Miner bee —Mace Vaughan/Xerces Society

“You can’t be a grower in New England without quality crops,” Linda Rinta said to a group of Islanders gathered in the Ag Hall last Tuesday, “and you can’t have quality crops without pollinators.”

Ms. Rinta is a cranberry and blueberry grower from Plymouth, and like most farmers across the region, her yield is not the same as it used to be. Industrial agriculture, parasites, and climate change have killed off bees at an alarming rate. The phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder, and it’s changing the way we farm, grow, and eat.

“In the course of life, there are problems you can’t do anything about,” Ms. Rinta said. “This is a problem you can do something about. Not just farmers, but everyone.”

In partnership with the Xerces Society — a nonprofit environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of invertebrates — Ms. Rinta works to combat the pollination disaster, and educate communities like the one gathered up-Island last week.

“We tend to want a landscape we feel safe in, a mowed lawn, pulled weeds, no dandelions … but if we get used to a different look and a different feel, we can start taking advantage of all resources,” Ms. Rinta said.

Part of the problem is the landscape we desire. Changing the way we view our landscape is the first step in bringing bees back.

She and the Xerces Society have been testing this theory by installing pollinator habitats throughout the country. They pick a site, make an agreement with the farmer or landowner, and install a pollinator habitat. Some of the elements that make up these refuges include proximity to clean water, windbreaks, shrub zones, nesting areas, and buffer zones between the habitat and insecticide area. Bonus points if the habitat is connected to another nearby habitat. “Site selection and site prep are everything,” she said. So far, they’ve worked on farmlands and golf courses.

“It works,” she said. “Many bees and species came back that we hadn’t seen in a long time.”

According to a segment on NPR, urban bees are healthier than country bees, which is a result of accessibility to floral resources. Cities tend to have parks with flower upkeep year-round, whereas rural areas have flowers, but they’re seasonal. Utilization of floral resources is another way people can make a difference. “Gardeners should try to have something growing at all times,” she said.

Much emphasis is put on native bees, which according to Ms. Rinta pollinate much more efficiently than honeybees. “What it takes a honeybee to pollinate in five trips, a native bee can do in one,” she said. Native bees buzz-pollinate, meaning they get inside a blossom and just vibrate. “They’re hard workers, and far better pollinators,” Ms. Rinta said. “We didn’t appreciate it until we were faced with the collapse disorder.”

Native bees are diverse, and according to a survey done in 2010, more than 182 species are found on-Island. Ms. Rinta encourages Islanders to help track the bees by uploading photos and sightings to bumblebeewatch.org. She also challenged everyone to find the rusty patch bee, a species that was prevalent in Massachusetts in the 1990s.

Monarch butterflies are also effective pollinators whose populations have been disappearing in masses. According to Ms. Rinta, monarchs are completely dependent on milkweed, which was eliminated from farming in the Midwest in 2013.

The return of our pollinators doesn’t require a lot, just an alteration in the way we view our landscape. Beauty is in the eye of the bee-holder.