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Learning About Native Bees

August 25, 2018

clip_image002This year, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where I am working on a certificate in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture, added a new option for students, half-day mini-courses. I signed up for several of these, but I worried that, given their three-hour length, they might lack depth. I was wrong. My first course of this type earlier in the summer was on floral mimicry, the ways that flowers fool pollinators by mimicking something they are not and promising a reward that they don’t actually deliver. The instructor was Kyle Martin, a Ph.D. candidate in plant biology at Cornell; floral mimicry is the focus of his doctoral dissertation, and he was full of enthusiasm for all the scientific details. It’s amazing how much science a geeky instructor faced with a class of geekily enthusiastic students can cram into three hours!

This weekend, I drove out to the botanical gardens for a three-hour course on creating welcoming environments for pollinators, with a focus on native bees. Entomology (the study of insects) is the weak link in my horticultural knowledge, so I was hoping to learn a lot from this course. Once again, I was not disappointed. An introduction to the different families of bees provided a structure for understanding the overwhelming diversity of these insects (there are 270 different species of bees in Maine alone), and I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not know that bees go through the same four stages of metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult) as do butterflies. I was also surprised to learn that wild bees are much more efficient pollinators than European honey bees and that they are also under much greater environmental stress. Since the focus of the class was on reducing those stresses by creating welcoming habitat for native bees, we paid particular attention to where and how bees nest and lay their eggs as well as to the plants they forage on.

clip_image004The instructor for this course was Deb Perkins, a wildlife ecologist whose company, First Light Wildlife Habitats, works with landowners in New England to create and improve wildlife habitat. I was somewhat familiar with Deb’s work because she lives in my town (Poland, Maine) and had been hired by our local Conservation Commission, of which I am a member, to create a wildlife management plan for some of our conservation lands. I was delighted to meet her, to learn more about her and her work, and to discover that I could arrange an individual consultation about how to improve habitat on my own property. I also discovered that she writes an excellent blog about ecology, which I have added to my sidebar. I particularly recommend her posts The Wonder of Wild Bees and Give a Warm Welcome to Wild Bees.

Because there is only so much that even an excellent instructor can cram into a three-hour class, the resources Deb Perkins introduced us to were perhaps the most valuable aspect of the course. These include the wonderful photo gallery of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, the Xerces Society, and Maine’s Eagle Hill Institute. I was particularly excited about the latter, which offers a dizzying array of weekend workshops and one-week natural history seminars at their coastal Maine location. There may be a week-long seminar on native bees or a weekend workshop on asters and goldenrods or on fall mushrooms in my future.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2018 11:14 pm

    Your botanic garden’s mini-courses sound outstanding, Jean. I wish my local botanic garden offered courses like those. The Huntington in San Marino does but the thought of driving through downtown LA’s hellish traffic to get there takes the wind out of my sails.

  2. August 26, 2018 6:20 am

    Very interesting, we should all be doing our bit to encourage more bees to our gardens. I recall 1987 the year after Chernobyl. In our Aberdeen garden, a great number of bumblebees were found dead in the borders and garden paths. This went on for a long time, I felt sure the radiation was to blame.

  3. August 27, 2018 10:29 am

    My uncle is an entomologist at the agricultural university in my small home mountain town and in-charge of the Bee farm here for as long as I remember. It was only recently that he let slip in a conversation that they sell Honey from the farm too. We were flabbergasted that he hadn’t told us that in the last 20 years. That honey is out of this world, especially the winter batch. Honey obviously led to Bee talk and we realized that the tea plants are actually toxic for bees! We live surrounded by tea gardens here.
    In Bangalore, a metro, every year in a particular season hundreds of bees just drop dead out of the sky. It is extremely distressing. Conservation is so important and so difficult at the same time.

  4. August 27, 2018 3:24 pm

    Hello Jean, it sounds like there’s no end of interesting and exciting courses to follow up on and there’s always something to learn with bee and insect pollinator ecology becoming increasingly important and urgent.

  5. Jean R. permalink
    August 28, 2018 5:56 pm

    Your bee class sounds really interesting! This week the bees have been really busy on my deck. I usually cut my coleus through out the summer but this year, I let them go to spiky flowers, much to the delight of the bees and hummingbirds. The plants look so tall and leggy but I can’t cut them until all the flowers are spent.

  6. September 2, 2018 4:08 pm

    We have two researchers at Cape Point studying our wild bees.
    She says most of our knowledge of bees is the ‘farmed’ (my word) honey bees in their commercial hives. Wild bees at Cape Point build their own hives, with a thick wall of propolis which enables them to survive wildfires.

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