Native Bees Are ‘Plan B’ In Pollination Efforts

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For the greater part of history, farmers have relied on the European honeybee for crop pollination.

As a result of declining honeybee populations, Project Integrated Crop Pollination (ICP), led by Michigan State University,  is helping growers find sustainable solutions for pollinating crops.

A plague of Colony Collapse Disorder has threatened the honeybee population since 2005 and has caused an increase in the price of honeybee rental for growers, according to the Michigan State University’s “Plan Bee” page.

The increased honeybee rental prices can potentially affect not only farmers but the consumer as well through marked prices on the crops that rely on pollination the most, the “Plan Bee” website said.

The next line of defense? Native bees.

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Mary Bammer, a research technician, bags blueberry samples so that they do not get eaten by birds. The crops being studied by Project ICP in Florida are blueberries and watermelons. Courtesy of Cory Stanley-Stahr

There are about 4,000 species of native bees in North America and around 300 in Florida, said Cory Stanley-Stahr, a post-doctoral UF researcher working on Project ICP.

Project ICP is enlisting the help of several institutions around the country, including the University of Florida.

The impact of native bees in Florida is being zeroed in on blueberry and watermelon crops, said Stanley-Stahr.

Jaret C. Daniels, another UF researcher working on the project, said one objective is to find cost beneficial enhancements to current pollination strategies.

Native, wild bees do the work of honeybees for free.

The study is focusing on observing the native bees that are already visiting the crop fields, and deploying several strategies to attract them.

David Weber, a blueberry grower in Winter Haven, is participating in the study.

Weber, who also has a master’s degree in entomology, said the influence of these pollinators is critical, especially with fruit crops. Without the bees’ help, the crop is not pollinated and the fruit is not produced.

For this reason, providing natural habitat is a big focus of the project.

Providing the bees with natural habitat surrounding crops can be an integral part of encouraging pollination, Daniels said.

He also said his property has 26 acres of crop fields on 100 acres of land and with the help of the ICP researchers, he has added a strip of wildflowers, which serve to attract the native pollinators.

“Native bees love native flowers,” Stanley-Stahr said.

Although to some farmers taking away cropland to provide an oasis of natural habits for the bees may sound counter intuitive, Daniels said,  “It might be that they could actually increase their fruit crop yield if they added augmentation of habitat.”

In some cases, the project is also bringing in managed bumblebees.

The bumblebee, one of Florida’s native bees, provides a unique service to watermelon crops, Stanley-Stahr said.

Their technique, called “buzz pollination,” allows a bumblebee to access the pollen of a blueberry bloom by contracting its wing muscles against the flower and causing the pollen to fall and collect on its furry body.  Because of the blueberry’s flower shape, it is not easily accessed by the pollination behavior of honeybees, Stanley-Stahr said.

Aside from bumblebees, most of Florida’s bees are solitary, meaning that they don’t live in colonies. Many are also ground nesters, Stanley-Stahr said, which means their conservation needs are different.

Assessing the native bee population also includes asking growers to report pesticide use, said to Stanley-Stahr.

Despite the potential of pesticides’ impact on bee populations, Weber, who has been growing in Winter Haven since 1988, said it’s important to understand that pesticide use is necessary to produce healthy crops.

“Even organic farms use pesticides,” he said.

Damage, Weber said, can be reduced through a series of techniques. The most important is to use a very targeted product — one that is designed to kill a specific pest.

Additionally, growers can use bee-friendly pesticides and spray at night when the bees aren’t foraging, he said.

“We’re really trying to go with nature, and not against nature,” he said.

Ultimately the project, which is now in its fourth year of five, aims at finding solutions for farmers and create tools that will aid in making better decisions regarding pollination strategies.

Daniels said that previous data on native bee populations is sparse, so researchers are kind of learning as they go.

Although the project is a result of the need to consider honeybee alternatives, it’s not necessarily about replacing the honeybee.

“It’s a way of making sure that we realize the value of all these pollinators working together and how can they — not take the place of the european honey bee — but how can they enhance the pollination of that very important dominant crop pollinator,” Daniels said.

About Silvia Rueda

Silvia is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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