The Block Island Times

B.I. bees and pollinators at the Ocean View Foundation

By Renée Meyer | Aug 26, 2013
Photo by: Renée Meyer Eco-worker Samantha Alger leads a group of islanders through a talk on the lives of honeybees and the roles they play in pollinating our plants and vegetables.

This summer the Ocean View Foundation has added a new program to its weekly events, called “Block Island Bees and Pollinators.” With all the current interest in bees, this program is designed to enlighten and educate visitors on the importance of our native pollinators.

Meeting on Mondays at 11 a.m. at the pavilion behind the post office, the session starts out with a general discussion on the role of pollination to our global food supply. It’s led by OFV “Eco-Worker” Samantha Alger, with the assistance of Block Island resident Fred Leeder.

Of course, bees have been in the spotlight lately as concerns about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) spread throughout the world, and a discussion on this subject is how the session begins. We quickly learn that wild, native bees and bumblebees are actually far more efficient doing this all-important job of pollination than the domesticated “honey bee” that was brought to America by European settlers in the 1600s. But while wild pollinators may be more effective doing their jobs, their increased absence from the fields and groves is just what has driven the practice (and dependence) on the trucking in of hives of honey bees to pollinate the crops.

Wild pollinators include not just native bees and bumblebees, but humming birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies and other insects. But at the Ocean View they are here mainly for the bees.

There are estimated to be some 4,000 species of native bees in the United States and according to Leeder and Alger, not too much is known about them. Fortunately, the crisis of the domesticated honey bees has led to an apparent increase in research.

What we do know is that they are “more efficient” pollinators of native crops, such as squash and tomatoes, because they have evolved with them over eons. Tomatoes and many other crops depend on something called “buzz pollination.” That is when the insects land on the plant and beat their wings at such a frequency as to cause the plant’s flowers to release their pollen. This is very different than the way a honey bee pollinates — by collecting pollen on its body and, rather unintentionally, dropping some off on the next flower it visits.

What we don’t know is: just what is the state of our wild bees? Have they been disappearing in terms of overall numbers and variety of species? It is this question that interests Leeder. It may be readily apparent when a hive of honey bees “collapses,” but how do we know the same thing isn’t happening to wild pollinators? Some believe that the absence of wild insects from the fields is due to “mono-cropping.” All bees need variety in their diets and if there are only vast areas of one crop, there is simply not enough food out there for them to survive the many months when that one particular crop is not in bloom. Note that our vast suburban landscape of meticulously kept grass lawns is its own form of mono-cropping.

At the Ocean View we also learn that this loss of habitat, as it is called, could be fairly simply alleviated by leaving hedgerows and borders of rough areas that will grow wild flowers and allow for bare patches of ground for nesting areas (many species nest in the ground) and provide food and shelter for the wild pollinators year-round. This is a practice currently being implemented by many organic farmers.

While the program is largely educational, there is also scientific research being conducted. An important aspect of the work this summer at the OVF is the taking of a survey of Block Island’s pollinators. Leeder and Alger are trapping wild pollinators up at the pavilion in conjunction with research being done for the American Museum of Natural History by Dr. Jerry Stage.

The study is replicating work done in the early 1970s on both Block Island and on the Elizabeth Islands slightly to our northeast. Eventually, they will be able to compare species found (and not found). But for now, the importance is in collecting and identifying the bees. Remember those 4,000 species? They can vary slightly — by a vein in their wings. Leeder says this is quite difficult and really can’t be done without a microscope. He tells me he has guessed at many of the varieties, only later to be told he was wrong.

Unfortunately, one can’t put a live bee under a microscope. You have to kill it first. To this end, they have set traps for the insects on the grounds of the Ocean View Pavilion. Different colored cups are filled with water and soap so that the specimens will be attracted to the color and then fall in and drown. Part of the inventorying is to see which colors attract which species.

This is where the program gets particularly interesting for the kids. They are invited to be “citizen scientists” as they go out with magnifying glasses to see what’s in the traps. Alger shows the participants such things as how to distinguish a bee from a fly. The flies get discarded, but the bees are carefully dried, mounted and tagged with the location where they were found.

The OVF’s program on Block Island bees and pollinators will continue through Labor Day. Alger herself departed for the University of Vermont on Aug. 16 to pursue her doctoral studies in evolution and ecology, but others will be taking over the program. If you haven’t been, you might just want to include it on your list of must-dos before summer’s end.

Clarification: In this story, island resident Fred Leeder was described as “having guessed at many of the varieties [of bees], only later to be told he was wrong.” Leeder said he does not simply guess at the bee species, but offers an educated opinion, which can be later refuted. Bee species can be separated by minute genetic differences.

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