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State's bees, bats are in a bad way while NH moose enjoy ray of hope

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 14. 2018 9:07PM

Martin Marklin's bees have begun gathering pollen from early flowers. The queen bee is marked with a white dot. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

Ten years ago, a winter survey of bats in New Hampshire counted 3,135 little brown bats, one of our most abundant native species.

This year, researchers found just one. One solitary little brown bat.

"It's pretty depressing," says Jacques Veilleux, a professor of biology and environment science at Franklin Pierce University, who works with the state Fish and Game Department to monitor bat populations.

The news isn't much better for bees.

A queen bee is "an amazing creature," says Hopkinton beekeeper Martin Marklin. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

The New Hampshire Beekeepers Association (NHBA) conducts a survey each April of beekeepers to see how their hives survived the winter. Last year, data on more than 1,000 hives in 130 towns showed a 65 percent loss.

It wasn't a one-time thing, says Heather Achilles, a Gilmanton beekeeper who chairs a research committee for the NHBA. "You can kind of see the trend," she said. "I think it's probably telling us something about our environment and what we're doing."

All eight of New Hampshire's native bat species landed on the state Fish and Game Department's most recent list of "species of greatest conservation need."

So did four species of bumblebees - and the mighty moose.

What's going on here?

The chief culprit that's killing honeybees in New Hampshire is an invasive pest called varroa mite, Achilles said. It attaches itself to a bee or larva, poking holes in the exoskeleton. That weakens the insect and makes it susceptible to other diseases, she said.

Jacques Veilleux, a Franklin Pierce University professor, helps the state Fish and Game Department monitor bat populations. The news isn't good. (COURTESY)

Cold weather can be a factor as well. Bees don't hibernate; they huddle together in clusters around the queen to stay warm; that takes more energy in colder temperatures, she said.

It turns out bees are very hygienic creatures; they won't defecate inside the hive. And they don't leave their clusters to eat the honey they've stored if it's too cold, Achilles said.

"If it's too cold for too long, they might starve," she said. 

The long cold snap that began the winter was concerning to beekeepers, she said, but fortunately, there was a warm spell in February that may have spared many of the bees.

Achilles said NHBA is just beginning to collect data on how the bees fared this winter. She was lucky; all five of her hives survived.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire's bats are being besieged by another invasive threat.

Sandra Houghton, a biologist with the nongame and endangered species program at Fish and Game, said a fungus is causing something called white-nose syndrome (WNS) in native bat populations. And it's been particularly deadly for the little brown bat, which likes to winter in the abandoned mines where the fungus thrives.

Hopkinton beekeeper/candlemaker Martin Marklin said he lost about 40 percent of his hives, including this one, over the winter. Honeybees are threatened by parasites, disease and habitat loss. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

Veilleux said the illness started showing up in New Hampshire about 10 years ago and quickly proved catastrophic.

In 2008, he said, surveys found around 4,000 bats spending the winter in "hibernacula" here; it was the highest number ever recorded in such tallies.

But the very next year, they saw the first evidence of WNS, a white powdery substance on a single animal's nose. A year later, the winter count was down by two-thirds, Veilleux said.

"And by the next year after that, we were at a 99.6 percent loss," he said. "We haven't recovered at all since then."

WNS is affecting other bat species here as well; this year's winter count found just 26 bats in all.

Bats were already dealing with habitat loss and the effects of climate change before WNS arrived, Veilleux said. 

"We always think: Is this the straw that finally breaks their back, where they just can't recover? That's my fear," he said.

There is one bright spot in this year's data.

Martin Marklin uses smoke to calm the bees before opening one of his hives. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

After years of devastating news about New Hampshire's moose population, the animals have been doing a bit better, according to Kent Gustafson, wildlife programs supervisor for Fish and Game.

Calf mortality had been as high as 80 percent in the first three years of an ongoing study into the health of the state's moose herd, Gustafson said. Each year, researchers collar moose, take blood and other samples, and record tick loads. If a collared moose dies, they conduct an autopsy to learn the cause.

The severe drought the state saw in 2016, Gustafson said, "seems to have killed a lot of the questing ticks in the fall."

The following January, the winter tick numbers "were the lowest we'd seen during the course of this study, and as a result of that, we saw much better calf survival that spring and higher productivity in the cows the following fall," he said. "That was good news."

And the tick counts on the moose this winter, while higher than in 2017, are still lower than during the first three years of the study, Gustafson said. "So it's looking like conditions in the last two falls have been a little bit better for moose and a little bit worse for the ticks."

This is the time of year when calves would be dying, he said. "We started calling April the month of death."

Hopkinton beekeeper/candlemaker Martin Marklin checks on the health of his hives. Some are thriving despite the long winter, but others had died. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

But this year, biologists are optimistic that there will be a continued decline in mortality. "There's hope," Gustafson said. "We'll keep our fingers crossed."

"Within three weeks or so, we ought to know the rough tally here and see where we stand."

It may be just a temporary respite, however. Climate change is gradually making conditions here unsuitable for moose, Gustafson said.

So what's lost if such species were to disappear? 

The loss of the moose, the largest member of the deer family, would be deeply felt by all who love New Hampshire and its wild creatures, Gustafson said. "It's one of the iconic species of New Hampshire and New England," he said. "They have been here, essentially, since the Ice Age."

And, Veilleux said, "For many of us that enjoy nature, enjoy the outdoors, losing a piece of the puzzle that makes up this grand landscape that we have, I think, is always unsettling." 

But there are economic effects as well.

Pollinators are crucial to agriculture, Achilles said; crops such as almonds are completely dependent on honeybees. Bees will fly up to five miles to find food, she said. "They'll start early in the morning, as soon as the sun hits the hive, and they'll be going all day until the evening."

Like bees, insectivorous bats play a major role in agriculture, reducing insect damage, pesticide use and crop loss, Veilleux said. One of his colleagues has estimated that the free ecological services that bats provide is worth about $27 billion a year to the nation's agricultural industries.

So is there anything humans can do to help these creatures?

Veilleux said there are some "glimmers of hope" among bat scientists working to identify genetics that can resist illnesses like WNS. But it will take a very long time for the animals to recover, he said; bats typically give birth to just a single pup.

"As a bat researcher, it's very sad for me," he said. "I know I'll never go into our mines and do bat counts again."

Bee researchers also are looking for ways to manage the mite problem, developing stock that is more resistant to such parasites and diseases, Achilles said. 

It's important for bees to have a variety of food sources, she said. "Pollen is their protein and nectar is their carbohydrates," she explained. And because bees don't hibernate, she said, "they have to collect everything that they need for the entire winter while we have wildflowers blossoming."

So if you want to help the bees, she suggests, plant a variety of flowers and fruit trees that bloom all season long. And one more thing: "Don't mow your dandelions - dandelions are a wonderful source of pollen and nectar."

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