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Earth Day: Planting N.C. species supports native bees, pollinators

Honeybees and native bees still need help

Media coverage of bee populationspeaked in the mid to late 2000s with the release of a 2006 National Research Council report and the first reports of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The report documented a long-term downward trend for honeybee populations in the U.S. based on rates from 1989-1996.

In October 2006, beekeepers first started reporting incidents of CCD, a mystifying phenomenon where worker bees disappear, leaving their queen and plenty of food behind. During winter months, when bee losses are at their highest, some beekeepersreported losses of 30-90% of their hives. Reports of CCD in the following years, however, have dropped off – though colony loss is still a concern.

Honeybees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops each year. Most notably, the California almond industry imports 2 million beehives to pollinate its crop each year. While California’s almond acreage grows each year, honeybee populations are expected to continue declining. Over the last eight years, winter losses have been unsustainably high, according to theU.S. Department of Agriculture. Average loss is between 1/5 and 1/3 of colonies during winter.

There are many reasons for the continued loss, but the main concern among beekeepers is varroa mites. Varroa mites, also known as varroa destructors, are tiny, red-brown parasites that feed off fat bodies. They can only reproduce in honeybee colonies and are the top concern among beekeepers. If the mites are found in a colony, the Beekeepers of the Neuse apply organic remedies, like essential oils and oxalic acid, to neutralize them.

Kim Guillamette is a member of the Beekeepers of the Neuse based in Goldsboro, N.C. Most are honey producers and hobbyists, while some handle small pollination projects for local farms. On site in Goldsboro are 20 colonies the group manages. Their work differs from the commercial keepers, who rely on thousands of colonies.

“We’re all very slow and cautious, making sure we don’t hurt any bees. Everybody is here to learn,” Guillamette said.

The Beekeepers of the Neuse check on their colonies in Goldsboro every Thursday. It’s the peak of the honey-producing season, where blooming flowers are plentiful and there’s enough pollen to go around.

The bee colonies are contained within white wooden boxes, each containing vertical slats where the bees produce honey, lay eggs, and make wax. Guillamette carefully withdraws each slat. Some slats are coded in wax, making them harder to withdraw. If the motion is too sudden or the colony is bumped into, the bees’ whirring grows louder before calming down again. She checks to make sure the bees have enough room, are active, and that their queen is laying eggs.

Honeybees are not native to the U.S. In fact, there are 104 other bee species native to North Carolina, like the carpenter bee and common eastern bumblebee. Honeybees are smaller than bumblebees. They live in hives containing thousands of bees and are about half an inch long. Bumblebees are the larger bees you’ll more likely see in your garden. They have the same black and yellow stripe pattern, but they’re three quarters of an inch long and furrier. Their furry is what makes bumblebees excellent pollinators as nectar has more area to attach to.

Whereas honeybees form hives, most native bee populations are solitary. Honeybees have received a lot of coverage over the years, shifting the attention away from native pollinators, like bumblebees and butterflies, which also experience population declines. While honeybees have proved critical for agriculture, they also crowd out and compete with native species.

The challenges facing honeybees and native pollinators are similar – habitat loss and fewer places to forage.

“There’s really no more old-growth trees with hollows for honeybees to live in and there isn’t enough forage,” Guillamette said.

Planting native species supports native pollinators and other wildlife

Whereas honeybees are managed and looked after by beekeepers, native bees are in need of additional support. One way to assist native pollinators, like bumblebees, is to grow native plant species.

“Everybody loves a nice green lawn, and what we need to be doing is planting native flowers, trees and shrubs so the bees have plenty to eat,” Guillamette said.

Luke Bennett is a conservation coordinator at the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF), where he assists local chapters conservation efforts and writes the Butterfly Highwaynewsletter.

“The bees still need our help,” Bennett said. “There's no doubt about that.”

The large, fuzzy American bumblebee prefers farms and flower-rich fields. They like to nest below the grass or even in underground holes dug by rodents. Unlike most native bee populations, they’re social. In the past 20 years, the bumblebee hasvanished from eight states. Habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change are major threats.

The bumblebee has a varied diet and plays a critical role in pollinating North Carolina crops. Native North Carolina plants like purple coneflower, bee balm, goldenrod and great blue lobelia are easy garden varieties that provide food and habitat for American bumblebees.

Bennett writes their Butterfly Highway newsletter and assists local chapters with conservation efforts. He says one way to support bee populations is to plant native species.

“Planting native plants is a great way to help not just bees, but all pollinators in general,” Bennett said.

Besides bees, native plants offer other benefits. First, they are lower maintenance. Native species have lived and evolved in North Carolina’s climate for centuries without the need for human intervention.

“Once these native plants are established, they don't really require much maintenance at all, because they're meant to be here,” he said. “They don't need our help. They don't need to be pruned like we're at Disney World.”

Native plants also require less water and clean stormwater runoff because they’re adapted to the local environment.

Healthy ecosystems are dynamic and change over time, but within the natural range of variability. Invasive species, like the Bradford Pear tree, crowd out native plants, competing for moisture, sunlight, and space. The USDA Forest Service reports invasive species have contributed to the decline of 42% of the nation’s endangered and threatened species.

Native plants provide home and pollen for bee populations, as well as other native pollinators. For example, milkweed is native to North Carolina and is critical to Monarch butterflies as a food source. For native pollinators, habitat loss is a primary driver of population decline. The NCWF encourages gardeners to plant native through its butterfly highway program.

“One of the best things that we can do is just make sure that our backyard, the land that we do own, serves as a suitable wildlife habitat,” Bennett said. “That's kind of what the Butterfly Highway initiative is all about.”

The NCWF has chapters across the state, including in New Bern and Washington. The federation helps its chapters by connecting them to local growers who grow native species. Bennett, who has a potted garden, says one benefit of planting native is seeing the wildlife it attracts.

“These native plants provide vital habitat and food sources for a variety of wildlife. The colorful array of butterflies and moths — all these pollinators are dependent on very specific native plant species,” Bennett said.

Witnessing the effects of planting native

In Kenansville, N.C., the Cowan Museum’s botanical garden has seen plenty of wildlife in its native and historic garden. The sightings are outlined in “A Museum’s Garden: Secrets, Wonders, and Delights,” written and illustrated by the museum’s director Robin Grotke.

For decades, the museum sat on a bare stretch of monoculture grass. The museum’s garden opened only a few years ago, but wildlife activity has flourished. From deer and foxes to aphids and blue jays, the wildlife found on the museum’s premises has grown. Anne Skinner, the museum’s STEM educator, says deer have been present in the museum’s garden – even though it’s in the middle of Kenansville.

“Now we don't see them, but we see their tracks,” Skinner said. “One year, we planted carrots in the kitchen garden, and you could see the deer tracks leading right up to a carrot plant and you could see it had eaten the top off.”

Native pollinators like bumblebees, butterflies, and wasps have also been spotted in the Cowan Museum’s Garden.

The Cowan Museum is one of many sites hosting Earth Day events this weekend. Their Earth Day event takes place Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Guests can learn from the Duplin Beekeepers about supporting pollinators and tour the botanical garden. Skinner will lead children in science-themed activities.

This Earth Day, the NCWF is encouraging planting native. Resources about what to plant and where across the state’s varied landscapes are available at their website.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.