The Life of a Vermont Bee
By: Gabe Andrews
Back in November, Politico ran a story about the first all-renewable-energy city in the U.S.: Burlington. As I read about the Intervale, the McNeil Plant, and the Winooski River, I felt a pinch of pride living in such a distinguished place. With her determination to confront climate change and cultivate local food, the Queen City leads the path towards a more sustainable future. Thanks to the foresight of Burlington Parks and Recreation and engaged citizens, this future looks a little brighter for our native bee species. It’s a city fit for a queen…bee.
Vermont is home to about 275 of the 4,000 native bee species found in the U.S. and Canada. Some of these have recently vanished from our state (e.g. Rusty-patched and Ashton’s Cuckoo Bumble Bees). Reasons for extirpation range from habitat loss and climate change to pesticides poisoning and disease from captive bees. The city and its partners are tackling three of these directly through renewable energy policies, organic practices within community gardens, and pollinator habitat provisioning. The last of which will be on full display all summer long.
I’ve frolicked through McKenzie Park, paddled to the Sea Caves, and watched the sun set at Oakledge, but have often wondered what Burlington looks like above floodplain forests and historic neighborhoods. How would a bee see this city? Would she find it more suitable than others?
To explore these questions, I planned a day in the life of a bee. I mapped out the 14 community gardens spread throughout the city, hopped on my bike, and went to investigate the local nectaring holes. As a generalization, bees can travel up to six miles from nest to forage, but the closer the better. The greatest distance—as the crow flies—between two gardens, is the six miles that separate Starr Farm and Wheelock gardens; by bike, it’s a bit further. In between are another 12 patches of ground to feed from. Add in the countless backyards and raised beds tended by the green thumbs of Burlingtonians and a bee is unlikely to require that 10k journey. So, what’s for dinner?
For bees, the answer is always vegetarian fare. These industrious insects feed on pollen and nectar from spring to early autumn, depending on the species. European honeybees are a bit of an anomaly—they stash food for lean months. However, our native bees rely on Vermont’s brief growing season and don’t have the luxury of winter storage (at least the adults don’t). This is an important bit of bee ecology. Though different bees emerge at different times, constant forage is a necessity.
In mid-June, we are welcomed with the violate blossoms of Ohio spiderwort and wild lupine (currently blooming in multiple community gardens, including Lone Rock and Calahan). Other important natives decorating Burlington’s gardens this time of year include self-heal, beardtongue, wood mint, and columbine. These early-season blooms will give way to mid-season milkweeds and lobelias, which set the stage for turtleheads, coneflowers, and goldenrods that mark the end of summer. In all, an adult female bee will collect pollen and nectar from these sources for just three to six weeks before she deposits her eggs and dies. Her offspring will hatch and pupate in the darkness of her nest chamber and wait out the long, cold Vermont winter out of sight. Their only sustenance is a packet of pollen and nectar left by their late mother. One of the best ways to support native bees is to plant native species of flowering plants that bloom throughout the season, providing resources for a diversity of bee species and their offspring. The other? Help them with habitat.
Many of us think equate bee homes with beehives. While bumble, honey, and some sweat bees are led by queens in a eusocial society, most species are solitary and nearly three-quarters nest in the ground. Mining, squash, sweat, and cellophane bees are a few of the ground-nesters. Green metallic bees nest in rotting wood, leaf-cutter bees make their homes in hollow stems, bumble bees favor abandoned rodent burrows, and mason bees occupy cracks in walls or even the occasional snail shell. These assorted habits provide ample room for diverse habitats in backyards and community gardens. Leave the dried stems of perennials (e.g. elderberry) to welcome overwintering mason and leaf-cutters and stack a few rotting logs to encourage the stunning metallic sweat bees. A patch of sandy soil facing south or east could attract an array of bees—just visit Greenmount Cemetery on Colchester Avenue in April to witness bees emerge from the well-drained soils typical of cemeteries.
Where would Burlington be without her pollinators? Certainly, our local food producers would suffer: the Intervale would lose its luster, community gardeners would fail to produce tomatoes, eggplants, and melons, and our apple orchards would stand idle. Our native flora would wait in vain for the fertility of spring and our soils would be still without the emergence of the ground-nesting majority. We keep or standing as an all-renewable-city, but our mission towards sustainability would take a hit.
Fortunately, optimism buzzes alongside the furry flight of our bees (all bees have branched hairs somewhere on their bodies). I returned from my bike ride encouraged by the efforts of our city and our people. In many of Burlington’s community gardens, kale, garlic, and strawberries were flanked by plantings of native wildflowers and shrubs. The urban wilds that surround these gardens provide further refuge and forage for our native pollinators. Together, the mosaic of carefully cultivated and intentionally wild landscapes help to ensure a city that is more sustainable and bee-autiful.