Roughly one-third of all food items produced in the United States come from crops that require insect pollination. Pollinator population declines, especially in bees, have become a growing concern for farmers across the country. However, there is a lot you can do as a new farmer to help increase populations in your area. Creating and maintaining bee-friendly habitats is easy and will also help support other valuable pollinators such as butterflies, moths, beetles and flies.
Native bees are important pollinators and many have similar requirements. They need a nearby water source, such as an irrigation pond, river, etc., and a season-long food supply. Native bee populations are small or declining because there is not enough food for these insects to maintain a steady or growing population throughout an entire season. It is important that there are available flowers for bees to forage before, during and after your target crop’s bloom period.
To support the many species of bees, season-long food supply is important. Bee species emerge at different times in the spring and summer and go into hibernation at different times in the fall. Due to this variance in emergence and hibernation, a steady supply of flowers blooming on your property from early spring into late fall is crucial to successfully support a diversity of pollinators for your crops.
Unlike forage requirements, nesting habitats for native bees vary greatly based on species. The majority of bee species are solitary, where females build their own individual nests. These bees will use either a preexisting cavity, create their own tunnel, or burrow into the ground. Cavity-nesting bees will use old nests from previous years, hollowed logs or stems, old rodent nests, etc. rather than creating their own. This is typical of bumble bees. Tunnel-nesting or wood-boring bees will excavate their own new nests in deadwood, snags, or any other wood they find suitable, including the side of a building. An example includes the carpenter bee. Finally, most solitary bees are ground-nesters and dig into bare, well-drained soil.
There are many things you can do on your farm to help provide nesting habitats for all of these nesting preferences. As long as it is not a safety hazard, leave a tall stump or a fallen tree for use by tunnel-nesting pollinators. You can also erect an individual fence post in place of a stump, if this is more suitable. If your property is bordered by a wooded area with dead wood, drill holes of varying sizes into the wood to encourage cavity-nesting and tunnel-nesting. For ground-nesting sites, it is helpful to maximize available bare soil. Commercially available nests can also be purchased. Bees need a lot of morning sunlight, so make sure there is ample morning sun wherever you are creating a nest habitat.
For more details about pollinator species and their particular habitat requirements, you can review Rhode Island Pollinators & Agriculture. It was written specifically for common Rhode Island species, but is relevant to pollinators throughout the New England region, including Vermont.
This article was contributed by Kathryn Wallace, Program Associate at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics & Environment. The Heinz Center aims to restore nonpartisan environmentalism by informing and convening decision makers.