Leadership in the Field of Pollinator Conservation in Massachusetts Cranberry Bogs

Cranberry Bog on Cape Cod (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

 

A large percentage of the world’s cranberries are produced in the United States, and Massachusetts is a leading producer among the states. Cranberries depend on pollination, and the current decline of many bee species in the northeast has increased the importance of research and leadership in the field of pollinator conservation around cranberry bogs.

 

Anne Averill, Leader and Expert in Bee Conservation in Massachusetts Cranberry Bogs

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Anne Averill, an expert in the field of pollinator conservation on cranberry farms in the Northeast. She is a professor of etymology at UMass Amherst and the lead contact for Massachusetts in the Northern New England Pollinator Habitat Working Group. Her scientific expertise is in diversity and abundance of bees in managed cranberry and natural sites and the impacts of land use on these populations.

Anne Averill, professor, Environmental Conservation, UMass Amherst

Averill is a project director of a USDA-SCRI 55-year grant to preserve native bees in Northeast farm habitats. This work involves implementing ecologically friendly insect management strategies for cranberry production bogs in Massachusetts. She creates best practice recommendations for farmers of cranberry to protect bees and reduce their exposure to pesticides.

I asked Averill what it was like to be a leader in her field, taking on the roles she has. She responded that her work is quite multifaceted, her time being taken up by committee meetings, teaching, cranberries, talks on bees, and working on getting scientific papers published. She also mentioned that it has been interesting to bring together the different externalities impacting the populations and the people trying to protect them.

Averill has been working on both the bee side of things and the grower side of things, and when I asked her how she would define leadership, she responded, “Leadership is being able to see all sides and trying to find a way to suit everyone in a way that is fair.”

 

Challenges for Bee Conservation in the Bogs

As I learned from interviewing Averill, bee conservation in cranberry bogs faces some unique challenges. Cranberries are usually grown industrially as a monoculture, and farmers are highly dependent on the yield of the crop. The farms have often been cranberry bogs for four or more generations.

One of the questions she’s been asking in her research for the last five years is, could cranberry bogs be a healthy place for bumblebees? She’s been working on setting up hives around cranberries, which last year  experienced only mixed success.

Averill thinks the bees are getting a “no dilution effect” of pesticides in pollen.  Because cranberry bogs are monocultures, there is no ability for the bees to stop at other kinds of plants, which would dilute the pesticide load in their pollen.

The chemist she works with says that the pesticide load in some of the pollen is among the highest they have seen. The bees are getting doses is in the hundreds of thousands of parts per million.

Anne emphasized that this is not the growers’ fault—the monoculture of cranberry production can’t really be changed.  Instead, Averill’s job is to tell the farmers to spray their crop in segments, and not to spray when it’s raining or windy, which is challenging because it creates more work for the farmers.

 

Cranberry Bog Best Practices in Bee Conservation

I also asked Averill about the ways farmers are incentivized to implement best practices to conserve bees. She responded that pollination itself is often all the incentive farmers need to implement best practices. Also, growers can apply for grants to put in perennial plants and pollinator gardens.

Cranberry Flower (Image source: Flickr.com)

Averill noted that is nearly impossible to grow cranberries organically. In her working group, they have noticed that farmers who attempt to go organic usually switch back to conventional quickly.

One practice she has been implementing to deal with cranberry pests without pesticides is flooding. However, this often leads to a significant drop in yield, which doesn’t make the farmers happy. Anne emphasized something she always says when she faces this issue, “My job isn’t to be popular, my job is to to come up with data so we can model all of the different factors that go into making that decision of whether or not there should be a flood in that particular spring.”

Averill mentioned that while the public often thinks that bee meadows and gardens are the best solution to conserve pollinators near cranberry bogs, she believes the problem is actually much larger than that.

She’s been starting to emphasize the importance of creating more areas that are conserved and set aside from development. She believes that we need to connect populations and promote genetic variability in urban settings. She mentioned that it will take some good political leadership to get the large scale habitat corridor areas set aside that are necessary to conserve pollinators.

 

Leadership in Bee Conservation in Cranberry Bogs

I asked Averill what it’s been like to take on the role of communicating with farmers. She replied that when you talk to people, you try never to be wrong. So as an expert, when you don’t know how to answer questions from certain stakeholders like farmers whose livelihoods depend on an honest answer, it’s best to say, “I don’t know” when there’s any uncertainty in the answer.

If you answer something that leads to a false expectation, you instantly lose credibility. Anne emphasized this point: “When you’re on someone’s property, you totally respect that this farm is their livelihood. So not only do you have to be right, but you have to treat the situation with respect.”

She explained that in her work, in order to have credibility, trust must first be established. Farmers tend to rapidly implement best practices when they feel they can trust her.

Anne’s commitment to the hard interdisciplinary research and communication work required in the field of bee conservation in cranberry bogs has made her a true leader in her field. She is dedicated to finding a middle ground between bee conservation and protecting the wellbeing of the farmers she works with.

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