Current Nature: BEE Thankful For Nantucket's Polinators

Libby Buck, Conservation Science and Land Steward at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation •

American Lady and Honey Bee on Golden Rod. Photo by Vern Laux

Nantucket is known for its rich history, tight-knit community, and stunning natural beauty. But did you know that this charming island is also home to a diverse and thriving population of native bees? In recent years, a regional study on pollinators has revealed that Nantucket has one of the highest native bee diversities in the Northeastern United States. These fascinating creatures, particularly the solitary and ground-nesting bees, play a crucial role in maintaining the island's delicate ecosystem. As National Pollinator Month comes to a close, let’s explore the world of Nantucket's native bees, the importance of their habitats, and what we can do to support their well-being.

Before diving into Nantucket's native bees, it's essential to understand the significance of pollinators as a group. Pollinators, including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, small mammals, bats, and even lizards, are responsible for transferring pollen from one plant to another, facilitating reproduction. Without pollinators, the food we eat and the plants we enjoy would simply not exist. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in pollinator populations worldwide, making it crucial to protect and support these vital species.

The Xeric Grassland, Barren, and Woodland Pollinator Conservation Project, a five-year study conducted across the Northeast, shed light on the incredible diversity of native bees found on Nantucket. The goal of the study was to understand how and why pollinator communities vary across xeric habitats in the Northeast and to assess land management techniques that support pollinators. Xeric habitats are characterized by exceptionally dry, well-drained, and nutrient-poor soils compared to other habitats. Nantucket’s sandy island soils perfectly meet the definition of “xeric” conditions.

Through extensive sampling and data collection, researchers discovered that Nantucket has a high bee abundance and species richness in the region- meaning there are both high numbers of individual bees overall, and many different species of bees. The Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF) and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF) participated in the study, contributing data from the Head of the Plains and the LLNF property. Notably, the LLNF site was home to a unique bee species called Lasioglossum marinum, a sweat bee that specializes in sand dune habitats along the eastern coast of the United States. In the study, LLNF was the only location that produced an individual of this species.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Pollinating Orange Milkweed at the LLNF Garden
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Pollinating Orange Milkweed

This study revealed that maintaining open canopy and exposed soil in grasslands is crucial for providing nesting habitat for native pollinators. Encouraging sparse vegetation, such as bunch grasses, allows these bee species to access soil where they can dig underground nests. Globally, 70% of wild bees nest below ground, highlighting the importance of open sandy soil.

As individuals, we can play a vital role in supporting native pollinators and their habitats. One of the most effective ways to support pollinators is by planting native species in our yards and gardens. Native plants provide essential nectar sources and breeding areas for pollinators. It is crucial to avoid using pesticides, as they harm beneficial insects like bees and butterflies. Providing a diverse range of pollinator-friendly plants with different bloom times throughout the growing season ensures a continuous food source for these important creatures.

To further deepen your understanding of pollinators and their conservation, there are several resources available. The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative created a comprehensive brochure on landscaping with native plants on Nantucket, offering valuable insights into creating pollinator-friendly habitats. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Surfing Hydrangea nursery are also excellent sources of information and resources for supporting pollinators. Locally, the Nantucket Land Council offers a "Planting for Pollinators" program, and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation has a model native garden at their office on Cliff Road.

If you're passionate about science and want to contribute to pollinator monitoring efforts, consider joining programs like Bumble Bee Watch, Journey North, or the North American Butterfly Monitoring Network. These programs allow individuals to collect data on bumble bees, monarch butterflies, and butterfly abundance and distribution, respectively.

Nantucket's native bees are a testament to the island's unique and vibrant ecosystem. Their diversity and importance as pollinators highlights the need to protect and support their habitats. By planting native species, avoiding pesticides, and creating welcoming environments in our own yards, we can contribute to the well-being of these remarkable creatures. Let's continue to buzz with excitement and take action to ensure a bright future for Nantucket's native bees and pollinators everywhere. Happy Pollinator Month!

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

LLNF Pollinator Survey
LLNF Staff and Volunteers Surveying for Pollinators
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