Peponapis, a solitary bee in Maine, in a ground nest in Hampden. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

Spring is in the air. So is the pollen, and so are the bees.

So just how many bees do we have here in Maine? How are they faring? How essential are they to crops? What can we do to give them a boost?

Bee patient.

We’ve got your answers and bonus fast facts, starting with:

Maine state apiarist Jennifer Lund. Submitted photo

1. Maine has an official state apiarist.

She’s very nice, and lately, pretty popular.

“I have never gotten so many calls and so many pictures sent to me of bees and wasps and all kinds of stuff,” said Jennifer Lund. “People are spending a lot more time at home and they’re actually spending more time in their yard and observing things, and it’s great and I love that.”

She’s only the state’s second apiarist, or bee specialist, and had the job four years. The first, Tony Jadczak, held it 30-plus.

2. Maine has 276 species of bees.

No, that’s not counting hornets and wasps, strictly bees.

And we didn’t know that until very recently, according to Lund, after University of Maine Assistant Research Professor Alison Dibble combed two large historical collections to count.

The vast majority here, as much as 90%, are solitary bees.

“They don’t have a queen and workers and large nests; they make these single nests with a couple to a couple dozen young, which they raise, they collect food for, they feed and then that’s it,” Lund said.

Andrenid, also known as a miner bee, on a salix plant near Long Pond. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

And by “they,” she means lady bees. Males die after mating.

While species count is known, population isn’t — it’s difficult to take a definitive bee census.

Judging by sightings, “some species are struggling, some are actually doing really well,” Lund said.

The rusty patched bumble bee, for one, added to the federal endangered species list in 2017, hasn’t been seen in Maine since 2009.

“There’s a lot of things that are impacting bees and they’re all working in concert, so it’s hard to tease out,” Lund said. “It’s really common to see a meme that says, ‘A, B or C is killing all of our bees,’ when in reality, it’s actually much more complicated than that. It’s five or 10 different things that can be impacting the population (and) they’re not impacting them all equally.”

Think climate change (some bees prefer it cooler). Habitat loss. Pests. Invasive species.

When it comes to pesticides, the news here is good, measured by honey bees anyway.

“We find that in general what they’re bringing back in their pollen and their nectar is minimal, insecticide-wise,” she said. “We think that’s because we don’t apply pesticides as much as they do in other areas; a lot of Mainers aren’t super concerned about weeds in their yard. We also find a lot of our farmers are actually pretty careful when it comes to exposing bees.”

Augochlorini, a type of sweat bee, on blackberry leaf. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

3. Maine’s had a five-year project mapping bumble bees.

Beth Swartz, project leader and wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said the state has historically had 18 species of bumble bee.

The Maine Bumble Bee Atlas’s aim is to document who’s still here, where, and in what relative abundance.

Citizen scientists contributed more than 26,000 photos or specimens in the first four years of the project, which wraps this year.

“We’ve been able to reconfirm 14 species are still present,” said Swartz. “Of those four that are missing, two or three of them are ones that were pretty rare and we don’t know if they were actually here for very long anyways.”

Most common here are the orange banded bumble bee and eastern bumble bee. On average, most of us have six to eight different bumble bee species in our backyards, she said.

Hylaeus, one of Maine’s yellow face bees, on blackberry bush. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

4. Depending upon the Maine crop, bees range from absolutely essential to a sweet bonus.

Non-native European and western honey bees are so integral to the state’s wild blueberry crop that Down East farmers rent 30,000 to 80,000 hives a year from out of state and buy four-packs of bumble bee colonies to give local bees a hand, according to Lund.

Bumble bees appear to have an evolutionary leg up on the process.

“When a honey bee goes to collect nectar and pollen from a blueberry flower, they actually have to dig around and they make a big mess, they sometimes have to rip apart the flower to access that,” Lund said. “Bumble bees have this neat trick where they fly up to the flower, they hang upside down and they vibrate at a certain frequency . . . that causes the nectar and pollen to release, to fall down on to her stomach. She collects it, puts it in her pollen basket and moves on to the next flower.”

Because they’re not as efficient, it takes a honey bee a dozen visits to accomplish what a bumble bee can do in a few.

Many of Maine’s solitary bees, which Lund says will fly at lower temperatures, are responsible for pollinating early-season fruit trees and other crops.

And some plants that don’t need bees at all still get a boost from them just the same.

“Tomatoes are one of those crops that can self-pollinate,” said Caleb Goossen, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s organic crop and conservation specialist. “That’s one of those areas that the yield is increased by the bees even if they’re not necessary.”

Since wild bees aren’t especially big fans of heading indoors, some greenhouse vegetable growers bring in bumblebee four-packs, he said. They’re a less aggressive bee to be around and don’t mind the workers.

Speaking of.

Megachile or leafcutter bee on a sunflower on Long Pond. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

5. Best ways to avoid getting stung.

Leave them bee, as it were.

Lund said most Maine solitary bees are reluctant to sting or even unable to.

“Usually when I hear about one stinging someone it either was caught in a fold of clothing, in a soda can, stepped on or grabbed accidentally,” she said. “With those that do sting more often — bumble bees and honey bees — most of the time, if you leave the bees alone they will not sting. Stinging is a defensive move that bees utilize when they want to defend something, most often their home.”

If they’re visiting a flower, it’s unlikely.

“Also if you look at it from a bee’s point of view, if they are foraging, their honey stomach is full of nectar and their pollen baskets are full of pollen,” Lund said. “Both of those resources are important for the hive. If they sting, they will die and those resources will be lost.”

Her two-step advice if you do get stung:

1. Fling the bee away — smashing it into you will push the stinger in further and more venom from the venom glands will be injected.

2. Remove the stinger as soon as possible. The venom gland attached to the stinger will continue pumping even after the bee has flown away. Use your nail or a credit card to get under the stinger and flick!

Nomad cuckoo bee on a salix plant. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

6. Maine started looking for Murder Hornets last year.

Even before they made crazy headlines, we were on it.

“It’s very low risk for Maine right now, but we do monitor for it,” said Lund. “It’s definitely not in Maine right now.”

She thinks the Japanese-to-English translation should be closer to Sparrow Hornet, a reference to its giant size, but “Murder Hornet sounds much more scary and much more sensationalized. To be honest, I think part of the reason why it took off so much and why it got so much press is because we’re all looking for the next thing to get crazy over, and I appreciate that.”

And about another buzz word, “colony collapse”?

She says it’s time to be retired.

“We actually figured out what’s causing hives to collapse, and it’s not one thing, and it’s not mysterious,” Lund said. “Three or four things acting on a hive together will collapse a hive. One of the biggest things is actually varroa mites. Beekeepers can manage for it, they can control it, but they have to be vigilant about it.”

The last three years, Maine has had between 53% and 43.4% annual statewide hive loss for honey bees.

“Beekeepers are able to make up losses by splitting strong hives in the spring,” Lund said. “For instance, if they have six going into the winter and three die, the beekeeper can split each of the remaining hives in the spring and increase back up to six hives. . . . As far as the migratory hives that come in from out of state for pollination services, we haven’t had a time yet where farmers could not get the hives they needed.”

In 2019, Maine had 1,193 registered beekeepers, 10,058 resident hives and 51,030 migratory hives, according to state figures.

Mason bee photographed on a piece of wood near Long Pond. Courtesy photo by Megan E. Leach

7. Maine bees would love to live in your bee house. Think bird house, but bees.

No energy to build one? OK, just don’t mow your lawn. That helps, too.

Turns out there’s a host of things Mainers can be doing to be more bee-friendly, such as planting native flowers in yards or potted planters.

“(Allow) plants to flower as long as possible, as much as possible,” said Goossen. “One thing I like to do in my garden is to allow cilantro and dill go all the way to flower. If you’re growing dill and cilantro for herbs, you’re just mainly growing leaves and once it makes a flower you usually think of it as done, but if you leave that in place, it can provide a lot of resources and be very attractive.”

He also suggests leaving bare patches on sandy hillsides; some bees like the sand.

Avoid insecticides and herbicides, Swartz said. “Even though herbicides kill plants, they often kill plants that bumble bees are foraging on. Another important one that’s a hard one for people to swallow is to not mow so much.”

Bees love clover, dandelions and ivy.

Maine state apiarist Jennifer Lund at work. Submitted photo

“Even if you don’t want to let your lawn go — I’m looking at mine right now, approaching a foot tall, and I’m also watching bumblebees flying all over it — even if you just pick a patch to let a piece of your lawn grow into wild flowers or let the edges grow into wild flowers, or just mow every two-three weeks,” she said.

There are directions aplenty online for building your own bee houses out of scrap wood, straws and tunnels.

After she put up new cedar shake shingles, Lund found them even closer to home: Mason bees started nesting between the cracks in the shingles.

“When I first said to my husband, ‘Oh, we have bees nesting in the wall.’ He’s like, ‘Is that a good thing?’ This is a great thing,” she said. “They don’t cause any damage, they’re just using these cavities to raise their young.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: