Bee cause: Frank Drummond empowers Maine’s mightiest pollinators to protect landscapes and crops
Frank Drummond likes hard workers. He’s helped them find homes at farms all across the state and has welcomed many to live right next to him.
From his Winterport, Maine home, Drummond monitors how these bee populations change from year to year. He watches as they forage for mud and leaves for their nests, and nectar and pollen to feed their young.
“They are quite fascinating,” says Drummond of the tiny native mason bees that inhabit the wooden nest boxes he built into the side of his house three decades ago.
For the last 30 years, Drummond, professor of insect ecology at the University of Maine, has focused on Maine’s 275 native species of bees, as well as the millions of commercial honey bees annually trucked into the state to aid in crop pollination.
Drummond has dedicated his prominent career to the tiny buzzing bees’ health, conservation and efficiency as pollinators.
He is well aware of the benefits of bees.
Without the critical pollination services these beloved bees provide, Maine’s beautiful landscape and agricultural sector would be dreary. And in recent years, the precarious health of honey bees has kept Drummond and researchers across the country on constant vigil.
“The basis to our landscape are the plant communities. So really, the insect pollinators are the keystone species or the foundation of our plant communities, which we enjoy so much when we go for hikes or walk through meadows,” says Drummond.
“Without bees, not only would we not have nuts or fruits to eat, but we would not have the wonderful, colorful wildflowers we see across the landscape.”
Since 1988 when he joined the UMaine faculty, Drummond has created an eclectic, interdisciplinary bee research community that includes entomologists, ecologists, biologists, horticulturists, anthropologists and economists.
“No one in the state has done as much to promote bee health as Frank. He’s truly a leader in the field,” says Kourtney Collum, a Ph.D. student in anthropology and the environment who studies pollination management strategies.
“I’ve met few people with as much passion for and commitment to their job as Frank.”
His Deering Hall office is lined with ecology textbooks, homemade bee boxes, and towering stacks of scientific journals and beekeepers magazines. His office door is covered in a patchwork of bee posters and cutout cartoons, including one that reads, “What’s all the buzz in the blueberries?”
His lab is a veritable hive of activity, with graduate students, undergraduate researchers and lab technicians conducting independent and collaborative research projects exploring issues ranging from flower nutrition and genetics to pesticide exposure and management strategies used in modern agricultural systems.
“One of the great things about being a bee researcher is that it’s a relatively small, tight-knit community, and it’s not uncommon for researchers to trade advice on protocols and to help decipher what results might mean,” says Kalyn Bickerman-Martens, a Ph.D. student in ecology and environmental science who is researching bumblebee health.
“I kind of imagine Frank as being the center of that community,” she says.
Through his bee research, Drummond also is heavily involved in wild blueberry research, ensuring the industry remains profitable for Maine farmers. He helps farmers evaluate their fields to see if the landscape is sufficient to have high numbers of native bees, or if they should invest in honey bees or alternative flowers resources.
According to David Yarborough, UMaine Cooperative Extension wild blueberry specialist, blueberry production in Maine has increased from 20 million to 100 million pounds in the past 10 years.
Yarborough credits much of this to a greater understanding of native and honey bees. And he credits the increase in understanding largely to the tireless efforts of Drummond.
“Frank is one of the key people in ensuring the understanding and importance of honey bees and how to keep them healthy,” says Yarborough. “He is one of the most renowned bee researcher in the country. He is very well known, and Maine’s wild blueberry industry truly appreciates his research and the resources he provides to growers.”
Born just outside London, England, Drummond and his family moved to South Africa before making their way to Rhode Island when he was 6 years old.
His fascination for bees took flight when he was 13.
“I collected insects — a lot,” he says with a smile. “There was a natural history institution that was within walking distance of my house, which was quite convenient.”
And a neighbor taught him how to manage honey bees.
Drummond went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in botany from the University of Rhode Island. He met his wife, Eleanor Groden, while studying for a master’s degree in entomology from Michigan State University, where he focused on population ecology of insect pests and how to design sustainable agricultural systems without the use of pesticides.
Drummond’s awareness of the importance of bees to agriculture took root while pursuing his Ph.D. in biology at the University of Rhode Island.
What captured my interest in bees was their intimate mutual connection with flowering plants. The idea that through coevolution they have both given rise to adaptations that benefit each other’s survival and fitness fascinated me.”
He revisited his interest in honey bees in 1981 when he and his wife accepted a joint position at the University of Massachusetts as Cooperative Extension fruit specialists. They purchased more than 20 colonies of honey bees, and started a pollination and honey-making business.
When Drummond and Groden accepted a joint position at UMaine in 1988 as insect ecologists, the belongings they packed up and moved included their 30 hives — which equated to nearly 1.5 million honey bees.
Since joining the UMaine community, Drummond estimates that he has advised nearly 80 undergraduate students and 30 graduate students.
Initially, he says it was difficult to find undergraduate students interested in working as research assistants. Today, he says, when he has 12 undergraduate research positions, he has more than 20 applications.
“As a researcher and teacher, Frank is constantly learning and growing, which inspires others to do the same. I’m always amazed by his vast knowledge,” says Megan Leach, a UMaine ecology and environmental studies master’s student examining flower nutrition, determining if bee floral preference is due to pollen and nectar nutritive content.
Other important contributions to understanding bee health and pollination are being made by Drummond’s other graduate students. Eric Venturini has studied specific bee forage plants for Maine and the economic benefits of their establishment on farms. Alex Bajcz has assessed the ability of blueberry plants to offset flower loss, and Lee Beers has studied the ability of blueberry flowers to avoid frost damage and the genetic basis for this tolerance.
Research scientists who work with Drummond — Venturini, Judy Collins, Elissa Ballman and Jennifer Lund — are studying bumblebee diversity statewide, soil nesting bee ecology, transmission of mummy berry disease by bees, and honey bee exposure to insecticides.
What Drummond enjoys most about being a mentor, he says, is the “continual intellectual challenge.”
He expects his students to become experts and to surpass him in their knowledge of their own research niche. That way, he is always learning.
“I learn a lot from brainstorming and being exposed to how different people perceive and think about how to answer a question. The students are always challenging me and are always creatively coming up with methods that I hadn’t thought about,” Drummond says.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees provide pollination to 80 percent of all flowering plants and 75 percent of fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the country.
Although Drummond has been researching native bees for nearly three decades, his research on honey bees emerged in 2006 when Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) made headlines around the world. The poorly understood phenomenon occurred in the mid-2000s in Europe and North America, and resulted in massive honey bee colony losses; mortality jumped from 10 percent during winter months to 40 percent. The mysterious declines left scientists and beekeepers dumbfounded and eager for answers.
Drummond and his colleagues set out to help solve the mystery.
In 2009, Drummond was awarded funding as part of a $4 million grant to determine the factors involved in CCD. In 2012, he was awarded $3.3 million as part of a $6.6 million grant awarded to a seven-state collaborative research project to research pollination and bee pollinator health of New England’s major bee-pollinated crops: wild blueberry, cranberry, apple and squash.
Researchers in the seven states established apiaries and, essentially, undertook a clinical epidemiology study, monitoring the bees until they died, then trying to piece together the factors that resulted in their demise.
They found that the bees’ health, like an individual with a suppressed immune system, was being affected by multiple factors that were piling on top of each other, leaving the colonies extremely susceptible to parasites, disease, infection and, ultimately, collapse.
The No. 1 factor was varroa, the pin-sized, parasitic mite that feeds on the blood of larval bees and is a vector for a variety of infections. Other factors included the Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), the fungal pathogen Nosema ceranae, pesticide exposure, loss of habitat and floral resources, and limited genetic diversity in the U.S. honey bee stocks, which allows pathogens and parasites to adapt to only a handful of genotypes, making the honey bee populations highly virulent.
Today — nearly 10 years since Drummond began researching CCD — overwintering colony losses average nearly 40 percent in the United States.
Drummond works with beekeepers and farmers to implement strategies that can help combat the factors driving CCD. Some of these include the use of miticides and pesticides, splitting the hive, drone trapping and sugaring.
Miticides and pesticides are the most commonly used method for large-scale beekeeping operations to eliminate the varroa mite from hives. But while mite numbers do decrease, the chemicals also impact the honey bees’ health.
“It’s kind of a tricky situation. If the levels build up too much, you are also stressing the honey bees,” Drummond says.
Another concern, he says, is that the varroa mite has become tolerant and resistant to a lot of these strategies, leaving beekeepers scrambling to find innovative methods. Some new methods include using a pathogen to attack the mites; a technology called RNA interference that interrupts the development and survival of mites; and breeding more tolerant and resistant bees.
“All of these techniques can be used in concert, so the mites can be managed. That way you aren’t just relying on a single control method, like a pesticide,” Drummond says.
Though CCD shook up the bee research community in the early 2000s, Drummond says there were some silver linings.
“What has really been nice is the interest the general public has shown in wanting to make a big difference in saving bees,” he says.
Drummond adds that the number of people who have started raising honey bees has increased dramatically, as has the number of people planting wildflowers and flowering garden plants to provide food sources for bees. Even kindergarten and high school students have become more aware of the benefits and importance of bees.
“I think that’s very powerful and it will help us conserve not only honey bees, but a lot of the native bees that may even offset a lot of the current problems occurring in honey bees,” says Drummond.
Another silver lining was the increase in funding.
“When I started working on bees, especially the native ones, there was almost no money available for pollination and bee conservation work. Most of the money available to entomologists was focused on pest management strategies,” Drummond says.
More funding allowed Drummond and his colleagues to take on more graduate and undergraduate students for researching commercial and native bees.
“Frank has excelled at collaborative work over the course of his career, working with scientists and stakeholders from a variety of disciplines to create a holistic picture of the status of Maine’s bee communities,” says Brianne Du Clos, a UMaine Ph.D. student in ecology and environmental science.
“He has provided opportunities for the next generation of pollination ecologists to discover the diverse wild bee communities of Maine and address the problems bees face in the state,” says Du Clos, who is studying the spatial patterns of landscapes surrounding wild blueberry fields. She is working to determine what kind of effect this has on the ability of native pollinators to successfully pollinate blueberry fields.
Maine is the second-largest importer of honey bees, trucking nearly 85,000 hives to the state annually to pollinate Maine’s native lowbush blueberries, Vaccinium angustifolium. Lowbush blueberries are obligate crops — meaning they are pollinated primarily by bees.
Each imported hive containing approximately 50,000 honey bees costs around $100. A 40 percent loss in overwintering hives can dramatically impact growers’ profitability.
Fewer pollinating bees mean less fruit and less money.
As bees forage for food, they pollinate flowering blueberry plant by depositing pollen on the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the plant’s female reproductive organ. The pollen germinates and fertilizes the flower to produce the tiny, deep blue fruits that are one of Maine’s top agricultural products.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees provide pollination to 80 percent of all flowering plants and 75 percent of fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the country.
“From a human perspective, bees are important for the diversity of our diet. But in a broader sense, they are important for the successful reproduction of many plants,” says Lois Berg Stack, professor of sustainable agriculture and ornamental horticulture with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, who has worked with Drummond for nearly 25 years.
Though Drummond and his colleagues have been working to help beekeepers decrease honey bee colony losses, they’ve also turned their attention to a less studied pollination force — Maine’s native bees.
“Native bees have been here since the retreat of the glaciers, and are a natural and permanent aspect of the landscape, but they are poorly understood,” Drummond says.
Even at fairly low densities, native bees can efficiently pollinate a blueberry field, explains Drummond. But like many plant and animal populations, their numbers can fluctuate tremendously over time, which can cause unease in farmers who need a reliable source of pollination from year to year.
Although honey bees can pollinate many types of crops and can be an instant pollinator force for growers, they do have their limits.
Honey bees have not evolved historically with some of the crops that have a North American origin, such as Maine’s wild blueberries, Drummond says. On a bee-per-bee basis, many species of native bees are more efficient pollinators compared to honey bees.
Also, Maine is cold. Especially for honey bees that are adapted to warm Mediterranean climates.
“In Maine, sometimes it’s so cold that the honey bees don’t go out to forage,” Drummond says. “The good thing is, the native bees evolved in Maine, so they are very well adapted to cooler temperatures, and they will go out and forage.”
As an applied bee researcher, Drummond is mainly focused on the species that are the most efficient and dominant pollinators in Maine’s blueberry fields.
“You may be focused on bee biology and ecology, but you are embedding it in the agricultural ecology that the bees are working in. That means having knowledge of the pesticides used, insecticides, which ones are more nasty to bees, which ones aren’t, which residues stay on flowers and impact bees, all the way to the effects of soil fertility on the plant that may indirectly affect the bees,” says Drummond.
That wide range of research knowledge leads Drummond to communicate with a diverse spectrum of individuals.
“What I admire most about Frank is his ability to communicate science effectively to any audience,” says Du Clos. “Whether he’s speaking to beekeepers, wild blueberry growers, gardeners or scientists from different disciplines, he always makes scientific information exciting and approachable.”
One of Drummond’s most memorable research projects occurred in the late 1980s, when he and his UMaine colleague, Connie Stubbs, noticed a high abundance of mason bees on the blueberry fields that run adjacent to his property in Winterport. They became fascinated with the species Osmia atriventris — the Maine blueberry bee. After studying the bees’ life history, they found they were efficient pollinators and fairly easy to manage, and had evolved to only fly during blueberry bloom.
The researchers developed a way for blueberry growers to inexpensively and efficiently enhance the native pollinators’ habitat by providing nest sites along the edges of their fields. The bees’ proliferating populations increased the farmers fruit production drastically.
“Frank embodies UMaine’s role as a land grant institution at its best. He has advanced science while helping important industries be more sustainable and productive,” says Samuel Hanes, a UMaine professor of anthropology, who helped create a pollinator toolbox to increase blueberry growers’ interest and understanding of native bee conservation.
“UMaine and Maine farmers have been fortunate to have a long history of entomologists, going back to Edith Patch, producing cutting-edge science promoting the public good.”
Recently, Drummond has been documenting the comeback of the yellow-banded bumblebee, which started to decline in the late 1990s and nearly disappeared from Maine by the mid-2000s. He is working to determine what caused the species’ initial decline, as well as what contributed to its dramatic comeback.
And in the last couple years, Drummond has been researching how much exposure honey bees get to pesticides in Maine.
He has enlisted the help of beekeeper citizen scientists to collect pollen statewide, which is sent to a chemistry lab to determine the pesticide content. With the help of Cynthia Loftin, a UMaine professor of spatial and landscape ecology, Drummond will use a model to determine whether certain landscapes in Maine can be associated with higher pesticide exposure in honey bees; knowledge which could inform management strategies.
This spring, Drummond was on sabbatical and traveled to see colleagues who work with bees at Penn State University, University of Tennessee, and USDA Bee Labs in Tucson, Arizona and Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
This summer, Drummond and Lund, a UMaine entomology research technician, will look at the impact of two pesticides commonly used in blueberry production. Lund has worked with Drummond for the past six years and co-teaches his beekeeping course.
What has really been nice is the interest the general public has shown in wanting to make a big difference in saving bees.”
They hope to determine whether there is a synergistic relationship between the two products that, in the laboratory setting, increased the mortality of bees by 800 percent when simultaneously exposed.
Drummond’s dedication to bee health is evident in the many awards he has received, including a sustainable agriculture award in 2000; a public service award in 2001; an outstanding research award in 2012; the UMaine 2013 Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award; and the Cooperative Extension Applied Research Award in 2014.
“Frank has a true passion for learning and has been a tireless proponent for bee research and the health of bees in Maine. He is imaginative, down-to-earth, compassionate, approachable and caring toward his students, not just academically, but also personally,” says Collins, a research technician who has worked with Drummond for nearly 30 years.
Drummond modestly stresses that his accomplishments would not have been possible without the dedication of many other UMaine researchers from interdisciplinary backgrounds, including Alison Dibble, assistant professor of pollination ecology; Aaron Hoshide, ecological economist; Xuan Chen, assistant professor of economics; George Criner, professor of agricultural economics; Nuri Emanetoglu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Herbert Aumann, adjunct professor in electrical and computer engineering; and visiting computer simulation modeler Hongchun Qu.
“Frank is an exceptional researcher with great methodological creativity, but that’s not enough to do what he does successfully,” Hanes says.
“What makes him stand apart is his ability to see other people’s perspectives, whether they’re farmers or academics. Both groups are highly diverse, but Frank manages to convey understanding and respect to everyone. That’s no small task.”