Efforts to combat honeybee colony collapse disorder are buzzing along as researchers across the country investigate integrated pollination strategies.
An expansive 15-institute, 50-scientist and 100-farm program, the Integrated Crop Pollination Project led by Michigan State University entomology professor Rufus Isaacs has been cranking out research since it launched in 2014 with an $8.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Part of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill) and its Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the project team’s overarching mission is to improve crop yields in the face of mass honeybee shortages. Specific objectives include identifying economically valuable pollinators and the factors impacting their numbers; determining habitat management practices to improve crop pollination; measuring the performance of pollinating species other than honeybees; demonstrating and delivering new pollination techniques to commercial growers; and analyzing the economics of pollination within the ecosystem.
In just two years, research projects conducted at farms across the United States have included those utilizing the more than 100 native pollinators other than honeybees and bumblebees. Other projects include strategic usage of wildflower pollinator zones near commercial production fields. In addition to research concerning the diversity of species which pollinate plants, studies now suggest that strategic landscaping can be beneficial.
“If landscape-level changes are not possible, local efforts such as plantings that boost local bee populations may help wild pollinators overcome the risks associated with pest management. Sound agri-management schemes aimed at sustaining wild bee pollination services will need to balance the benefits of pest management against the costs to wild pollinators, and do so with the understanding that such trade-offs will change depending on the landscape context. Practices that preserve, even enhance, wild bee pollination services may also support additional ecosystem services, such as biological control,” a study determined.
Cross-country workshops include those such as at Island Grove Ag Products in Hawthorne, Florida, a field day concerning major pollinators of Florida blueberries, bee ecology and resource needs as well as how to minimize the risks of pesticides to bees. The structural needs for a successful wildflower habitat were also demonstrated along with bumblebee usage. Speakers included academics from the University of Florida as well as specialists from the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation.
Just a few years into the work, tangible results are appearing. Projects are demonstrating that profits from increased yields can offset the cost of managed wildflower plots. A single blueberry field in Michigan can attract up to 112 kinds of pollinators other than honeybees and bumblebees, and varying a wildflower configuration can shift that mix, and in turn, product volume and quality. Not all pollination zones are created equally and will differ greatly depending on the types of pollinators desired, the climate and soil types. Farming operations seek to maximize space and in some cases have limited room for expansive flower zones, and this too needs to be considered as different types of flowering plants produce different levels of different pollen.
In the U.S., more than 4,000 species exist of bees alone. Just as some bees tolerate cold weather better than others, some pollinators tolerate nearby pesticide usage differently. Research is also indicating that pollinator diversity can heighten nutrient content in certain crops. History fans might find it sweet to know that honeybees in point of fact did not exist in North America prior to European settlers bringing them here in hives to meet the thousands of neighboring species. Interestingly enough, the honeybee will not pollinate all plants equally, and does not in fact do so with tomatoes or eggplants. Other species of bees are much more effective at pollinating pumpkins, cherries, blueberries and cranberries. This is due in part to the fact that honeybees are not native to North America.
This research could lead to some benefits for all in agriculture, from pesticide manufacturers to growers. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. crop production requires pollination, representing about $14 billion in product each year. Of that, about $3 billion worth of crop production is pollinated by bees other than honeybees. Between 2008 and 2013, nearly 23 percent of the country’s wild bee population has been lost, with some of the greatest numbers suffered in the Midwest, California’s Central Valley, the Mississippi River Valley and the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, the same burgeoning volume of these crops is equally reliant on chemical products, which many believe is harming bee populations. The conundrum continues as producers realize the need to rent bee hives to offset the dwindling number of wild bees. This has produced a dramatic spike in cost to producers who reported paying $35 to $45 per hive to beekeepers just five years ago, and now seeing those costs between $65 and $150 per hive. With some crops requiring as many as five hives per acre, and large producers managing thousands of acres per operation, the costs are significant.
The Integrated Crop Pollination Project maintains a growing database displaying its published research and public events, which span topics such as cover cropping to entomology. For more information, visit http://icpbees.org/. To see amazing time-lapse video of honeybees hatching, check out this story.
Inset image courtesy of Jason and Kathy Cote