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Articles from our Landowner Newsletter

manure drag lineKeeping Nutrients in the Soils: Manure Injection and Aeration. Read more.

soilSoil Recovery after Irene: Questions and Answers with Heather Darby. Read more.

emerald ash borerInvasive Insects: Achilles heels of the northern forest. Read more.

wheatGrowing Grains In Vermont. Read more.


riverCaring for our Rivers and Floodplains. Read more.


Invasive Plants: What Landowners Can Do. Read more.


Vernal Pools: Secret Worlds in the Woods Read more.


Firewood: Energy From the Forest   Read more.


Alternative Energy on the Farm: Methane Digesters Read more.


Alternative Energy on the Farm: Wind Power Read more.


Managing Your Land for Birds Read more.


Non-native plants that are harming our forests, fields and farms Read more.

Getting Started with Wild Pollinators

sweat bee on asterActively Managining Land to Improve Pollinator Habitat Can Reap Benefits

by Karen Johnston

Whitney Blodgett, owner of Sentinel Pine Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont, has watched pollinators work the apple trees of the family business since childhood. Now the orchard’s owner, he rents 200 hives every spring to meet a heavy pollination demand. “The honeybees are healthy and do the job well,” he reports, “working alongside wild bees, filling the blossoms.”

The rental hives are one part of a complex pollinator dance happening in and around nearly 200 acres of fruit trees. Blodgett’s thriving trees are encircled by patches of forest and fields on more than 530 acres that were conserved with VLT in 2000. “We’ve managed our land with an eye towards stewardship from the beginning,” he says, “and with the honeybee problem on the radar, it makes sense to support native pollinators.” He leaves much of the land surrounding the trees in goldenrod, wild carrot, grasses, and shrubs, and aids native plants by removing invasives.

Like Blodgett, most Vermont farmers and gardeners are aware of the serious decline in the European honeybee. Nationally, an average 33 percent of managed hives and an estimated 90 percent of feral honeybees have disappeared due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Research suggests that CCD’s causes are vexingly complex with contributing factors including pesticide toxicity, parasitic mite infestation, bee malnutrition, environmental stressors, and an array of pathogens preying upon bees weakened by nomadic beekeeping practices (the annual transport of hives from region to region).

Efforts to address the crisis are varied. Nationally, the USDA just announced plans to fund bee forage improvement in the Midwest. In Vermont, beekeeping by small, hobby keepers is surging, with more than 2,000 beekeepers at 2,500 different locations managing more than 11,000 hives. Beekeeping has grown steadily over the last decade, notes Stephen Parise, Agriculture Production Specialist at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. This growth bucks a 50-year national trend toward fewer managed hives. Vermont beekeepers are moving fast to meet pollination demand, while also making the state New England’s leading honey producer.

With CCD threatening honeybees, wild native pollinators are increasingly seen as pollination insurance. Native bees, wasps, moths, flies, butterflies, beetles, and birds account for an estimated $3 billion in annual U.S. crop production. Vermont has 350 species of native bees, with 100 species working on apple trees alone. Bee for bee, natives are more efficient pollinators than honeybees—they start earlier, stay out later, and do it all for free.

Our most important native bee is the most familiar—the bumblebee. These bees pollinate Vermont fields and pastures from early spring to late fall, providing vital ‘buzz’ pollination for clover, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini. Another native, the squash bee, provides 67 percent of the pollination necessary to set a crop for the grower, says Stephen, making it a primary pollinator of the state’s cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons, and more).

Growing evidence suggests that crop pollination needs can be entirely met by wild natives, if properly encouraged. Rutgers University bee researcher, Rachael Winfree, documented 90 to 100 percent pollination rates on farms adjacent to wild lands that support native pollinators. In a recent Canadian study, the fallowing of one third of a canola operation’s total acreage resulted in higher crop yields, due to improved wild pollination.

“Enhancing, restoring, and creating habitat for pollinators has wider benefits for the farmer’s bottom line and for wildlife,” says Stephen. Conservation plantings reduce soil erosion, loss of irrigation water, and the leaching of pesticides and fertilizers. Native plant habitat created adjacent to fields outcompetes pernicious weeds, naturally removing the weed seed bank, saving on herbicides and labor.

“The timing couldn’t be better to begin conservation of these sensitive native species,” states Leif Richardson, a bumblebee researcher at Dartmouth College. “Wild pollinators are in trouble. Habitat loss, pesticide susceptibility, disease, and environmental challenges are contributing to decline. Bumblebees are dealing with all the same things that are troubling the honeybee.”

Of the 17 bumblebee species identified in Vermont from the 1960s to the ‘90s by the University of Vermont, only 12 were found in an extensive 2012 survey conducted by citizen scientists working with the Vermont Center for Ecological Studies in Norwich.

Encouraging Native Pollinators on Your Land

Plants for Pollinators

Aster – Symphyotrichum
Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum
Azalea – Rhododendron
Basswood – Tilia
Beebalm – Monarda
Blueberry – Vaccinium
Boneset – Eupatorium
Goldenrod – Solidago
Hawthorn – Crataegus
Lobelia – Lobelia
Lupine (Native) – Lupinus
Meadowseet – Spiraea
Milkweed – Asclepias
New Jersey tea – Ceanothus
Serviceberry – Amelanchier
Turtlehead – Chelone
Willow – Salix
Wild Mint – Metha
Spiderwort – Tradescantia

Garden Plants

Basil – Ocimum
Blazing Star – Liatris
Borage – Borago
Catmint – Nepeta
Cosmos – Cosmos
Hyssop – Agastache
Lavender – Lavandula
Purple Coneflower – Echinacea
Russian Sage – Perovskia
Squill – Scilla

Bee Friendly Cover Crops

(plant legumes and grasses together, when possible)
Red Clover

“We’re lucky in Vermont that our diverse landscape still harbors much native pollinator habitat,” says Jane Sorensen, a former landscape architect who teaches a UVM course on pollinators and is the co-owner of the VLT-conserved River Berry Farm in Fairfax. “We need to be careful to protect what we have to prevent any further loss of native pollinators.”

Encouraging pollinators on croplands doesn’t have to be difficult, says Jane. “Pollinator habitat can be added onto conservation projects and included in crop rotations. When choosing your cover crop, for example, consider how it will improve habitat.” (See article sidebar for a pollinator-friendly plant list.)

Pollinator habitat can also be enhanced by adding bee forage into natural buffers along streams, woodland edges, and hedgerows. “You can add in habitat as you’re doing rehab with erosion slopes and filter strips,” Jane suggests. “Use vestiges of land, less prime pieces, along the road, along driveways, and where there is already a lot of native plant growth.”

The proportion of native pollinator habitat is very important on farms growing crops needing pollination, such as fruits and many vegetables. Ideally, Jane says, 10 to 30 percent should be in habitat to maximize the diversity and quantity of pollinators.

“If you have some minimally managed land on your farm growing wildflowers like Joe-pye weed, boneset, milkweed, asters, and goldenrod, you have some great native pollinator habitat,” says Jane. “Maintain it as habitat.”

Then identify what is flowering in your native pollinator refuge. “The goal is to have at least three forage species in bloom at a time from early spring through fall. Start to plant good nectar and pollen forage, lots of flowers, and include bunchgrasses for nesting. Leave spots with bare, sandy soil, cavities in trees, and pithy stemmed plants for cavity nesting bees,” says Jane. “If you’ve got that going, with 10 to 30 percent of the land, you’re golden.”

Education, Planning, and Financial Assistance

The good news is that there are many educational resources available for those interested in pollinator conservation.

People engaged in farming can contact their local NRCS office to learn more about funding opportunities that support pollinators through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).

Wild pollinator conservation is worth the effort: a small investment in native pollinators now will yield huge dividends for Vermont farms and gardens, helping assure a regular food supply well into the future.

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