A fruitful new partnership for farmers and pollinators


No bees, no berries. For Bruce Hall, that’s the bottom line.

You can thank bees for this tasty addition to your breakfast smoothie. Photo: Jasper Wyman & Son

“In our industry, we have a flower, and we want it to become a berry,” explained Hall, an agronomist for Jasper Wyman & Son. Better known as “Wyman’s of Maine,” purveyors of wild blueberries and other frozen fruits. “We need pollinators for that to happen, so they have always been important to us.”

But when the term “colony collapse disorder” appeared in the headlines in 2006, the company started looking at pollinator health beyond their fields. Wyman’s supported academic research to help advance understanding of the phenomenon that was affecting domesticated honey bees, and the farmers who depend on them, and provided some of the seed funding for the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State University.

Many fruit crops, like apples, peaches, and blueberries, require pollination by insects. On average, the cost of rented honey bees is now the second highest overhead cost of production for wild blueberries. Photo: Jasper Wyman & Son

Then they looked in the mirror. “We asked ourselves: are we contributing?” Hall said.

More than a decade later, the company is still helping to move the needle in pollinator science — in fact, when I spoke with Hall, he was attending the International Pollinator Symposium in Davis, California, to learn about the latest research and inform discussions about emerging needs.

But Wyman’s is also leading by example back home.

Today, the company manages hundreds of acres of pollinator habitat in addition to the 8,000 acres they manage for wild blueberries.

Now a budding initiative in New England will help other interested farmers support a future for pollinators, and themselves, on their land.

Developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the New England Pollinator Partnership will deliver technical and financial assistance to producers interested in implementing pollinator conservation practices on their land.

“Our vision is to meet the needs of producers and pollinators by prioritizing conservation on farm and forest land across New England,” said Eric Venturini, a Pollinator Conservationist with Xerces and Partner Biologist of the Natural Resources Conservation Service who helped develop the partnership.

Field of dreams? With simple enhancements, fruit fields can offer an oasis for some at-risk pollinators. Credit: Jasper Wyman & Son

Practices like those already in place on Wyman’s land epitomize the win-win vision behind the agreement. Creating pollinator habitat on edges of blueberry fields supports more abundant and diverse populations of native bee species that complement the services provided by domesticated bees, and provide natural insurance in case of another crisis like colony collapse disorder.

The flowering field borders also keep both wild and commercial bees happy and healthy before they go to work.

“Ideally, you want honey bees on the ground the day before your crop flowers, but that rarely happens,” Hall laughed. “So when the hives arrive, you want to make sure they have the supplemental floral resources they need to survive.”

There are more incentives for participation: the Natural Resources Conservation Service will help growers in the voluntary program develop site-specific conservation plans. The Service will assure participants that they will not be asked to do more than what’s in their plans, even if more pollinator species become protected as threatened or endangered. Additionally, participants will be covered under an umbrella endangered species permit provided to the Natural Resources Conservation Service by the Service, instead of having to obtain individual permits.

The New England Pollinator Partnership aims to improve the prospects for endangered pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee, and at-risk pollinators like the monarch butterfly. Photo: Kim Mitchell/FWS

The objective is to improve the conservation status of native species like the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee and the at-risk yellow-banded bumble bee and monarch butterfly in collaboration with producers, not at their expense.

For both the conservation partners and the producers, it could be a natural evolution of the way they do business. Many of the guidelines developed for participants in the New England Pollinator Partnership intentionally mirror those of Xerces’ new food certification label: Bee Better Certified. By taking part in the partnership, producers can move toward gaining recognition for their pollinator conservation work in the consumer market.

It’s good for bees, and it’s good for the bottom line.

The sweet spot

In 1816, a Revolutionary War veteran named Henry Hall noticed that wild cranberries growing on his land in Dennis, Massachusetts — a town on Cape Cod — were more productive after a blustery winter when wind blew sand over the bog. He decided to experiment.

Hall began transplanting vines and spreading sand over them, like a kid “gardening” in a sandbox. I imagine the neighbors looked askance. But the vines flourished. And before long, the commercial cranberry industry took root.

Sanding cranberry bogs to promote growth is standard operating procedure in the cranberry industry because it works, and because it’s relatively easy to do. Photo: UMass Extension

Two hundred years later, sanding bogs is standard operating procedure for cranberry producers, chiefly because it works. “When the vines are covered with sand, the woody runners tends to sprout more uprights” — the vertical stems that bear the cranberries — “and that increases the density of fruit production,” explained Parker Mauck, Director of Grower Relations and Corporate Procurement for Decas Cranberry Products.

But there’s another reason why it’s common practice: the barriers to implementation are low. Cranberries only grow in places with sandy soil, so it’s not a burden for growers to come up with some sand to sprinkle over them periodically. If Hall had discovered that sprinkling gold dust on vines stimulated growth, it’s unlikely dried cranberries would be a supermarket staple today.

The objective of the partnership is to identify and promote practices that lie in that sweet spot. Actions that offer practical appeal both because they support high-quality pollinator habitat, and because they benefit producers by increasing the insect workforce tasked with visiting each flower in their fields. The Natural Resources Conservation Service can help farmers with practices such as planting wildflowers and native grasses in buffers and areas that are not in production.

Parker Mauck and Scott Hannula lead the way toward commercial cranberry bogs, which are surrounded by earthen dikes for irrigation.

“To me, the appeal of this program is that you have different agencies working together to help address a challenge facing the farming community by making it easier for growers to improve pollinator habitat,” Mauck said. Like blueberries, cranberries rely entirely on insect pollination, and the flowers require multiple visits to develop into a salable fruit.

My conversation with Mauck took place at a bog managed by Scott Hannula of Oiva Hannula & Sons — Scott is a grandson, and one of about 100 growers that Decas purchases fruit from.

Standing on top of one of the earthen dikes surrounding the bogs, the fields appeared to be a tranquil sea of pink flowers. Then we got closer.

“One of my favorite things to do is sit here like this, and stay still,” Hannula said after we had hopped down onto the bog. “See how everything is abuzz?”

Hannula, whose family manages 450 acres of bogs for Decas Cranberry Products, points out all of the pollinators hard at work in the field.

The bog was humming with commercial honey bees from the rental hives that would be on the premises for about a month, as well as some native pollinators who had appeared on their own.

“Without these guys working out here…” Hannula paused, looking around. “The wind is blowing a little, it’s doing something, but it’s not doing what they’re doing.”

It was a promising sight, but Mauck said he is concerned about the long-term trends. Overall pollinator diversity is declining globally, putting growers at risk — a risk illustrated by the 2017 listing of the now endangered rusty patched bumble bee, and in the domesticated honey bee world, by colony collapse disorder. Beekeepers in the United States spent $2 billion dollars replacing lost honey bee hives, and that expense trickled down to their customers — the farmers who rent honey bees for pollination. On average, the cost of rented honey bees is now the second highest overhead cost of production for wild blueberries.

Mauck said he sees the potential for the pollinator partnership to help address that risk through practices that attract not just more pollinators, but also, more diverse pollinators, so producers are not dependent solely on domesticated honey bees.

Mauck, Director of Grower Relations and Corporate Procurement for Decas Cranberry Products, points to one tiny cranberry flower in a field of millions. Each requires multiple visits by a pollinator to develop into a salable fruit.

An important part of attracting diverse pollinators is providing diverse habitat, both in terms of its floral composition, and its function. As Bruce Hall from Wyman’s pointed out, “Habitat isn’t just food: it’s shelter, and places to congregate for certain behaviors, like mating.”

No single farm can meet all habitat needs for all pollinator species, of course, but that’s the beauty of the partnership. As part of a network of farms that have implemented practices designed to enhance their individual operations based on the best available conservation science, each participating grower contributes to the diversity of the New England pollinator landscape.

It won’t happen overnight, but some people can already see the big picture.

As Mauck and I were driving back to Decas’ processing facility from the bog, he suggested I look at the area in Google Earth when I got back home. “It’s basically a patchwork of cranberry bogs,” he said.

Boy was he right. But in addition to showing the extent of the bogs, the bird’s-eye-view made me aware of what surrounds them: neighborhoods, commercial centers, roads, athletic fields, and forests. All important pieces of the New England mosaic, but not necessarily the most important pieces for pollinators.

Lowbush blueberries are native to pine barrens, open areas characterized by sandy soil, shrubby vegetation, and conifers. Credit: Jasper Wyman & Son

For thousands of years, the types of open habitats that provided diverse floral resources for many pollinators were maintained naturally through wildfires, and intentionally through controlled burns set by Native Americans to manage the landscape for hunting and other activities. Now these kinds of habitats, like pine barrens and heathlands, are harder to find. Most land is either developed, or forested.

That’s why every little bit of pollinator habitat helps, whether along roadsides, office parks, or in home gardens.

But in today’s landscape, large open areas like cranberry bogs, blueberry fields, apple orchards, and meadows are places with the potential to provide certain pollinators with more of the resources they need to survive.

Through simple enhancements that complement land use, like flowering field borders, windbreaks that protect pollinator habitat from pesticide drift, flowering hedgerows, and pollinator-friendly pest management like Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management, we can make them places where pollinators will thrive.

The goal of the New England Pollinator Partnership is to reach more than 1,200 landowners and provide a total of 7,500 acres of new pollinator habitat. If you live in New England and are interested in learning more about the partnership, contact your state Natural Resources Conservation Service office: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/sitenav/national/states/

The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other government agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, businesses, utilities and others. It has drawn support for its use of incentives and flexibilities within the ESA to protect rare wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working.