While much of the modern world seeks to solve problems the high tech way, a group of agricultural researchers is tapping into an age-old natural technique for stabilizing food production: attracting wild bees. Fifteen institutions, 50 scientists and 100 farm fields are part of a five-year experiment reintroducing the wild bee's role in commercial crop pollination. The hope is that by attracting native bee pollinators to farms, growers can increase yield, reduce costs, and better ensure consumers of a sustainable food supply.
The $8.6 million Integrated Crop Pollination Project, funded by the US Department of Agriculture, which offers something of a "plan bee" for protecting the food supplies, explores the use of wildflower buffer zones around commercial crops to attract wild bees. These zones aim to increase native bee populations, along with other wild pollinators, as an alternate and/or supplement to traditional honeybee pollination practices.
The ICP involves farms in Michigan, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon, universities coast to coast, and the nonprofit defender of wildlife, the Xerces Society. The project is based on the time-honored "companion planting" concept gardeners have used since the nation's founding, in which specific plants are grouped together to provide mutual benefits such as nutrient support, pest control, shade and pollination.
American crops requiring pollination are valued at $14 billion annually, representing nearly 40 percent of US crop production. But threats ranging from honeybee colony collapse disorder, to climate change, to use of neonicotinoid insecticides, have in recent years shed a light on the vulnerability of pollinator species, as well as the agricultural industry's dependence on them. Native bees are less relied upon than honeybees for food production but still pollinate crops valued at $3 billion annually. However, they too have suffered declines from disease and loss of habitat.
A study released last December maps the nation's wild bee populations, estimating that wild bee populations declined 23 percent between 2008 and 2013. Most disturbing for food production, key agricultural areas in the Midwest, California's Central Valley, the Mississippi River Valley, and the Pacific Northwest were identified as having the greatest discrepancies between surviving native bee populations and pollination needs for crop production.
"It's one of the largest studies recently coming out on how land use has changed and affected wild bee populations," said Dr. Rufus Isaacs, a co-author of the study and also the ICP project lead. "Land in production has increased in ratio to the natural land," Isaacs explained.
As agricultural production has increased, and pollinator numbers have decreased, many growers have come to rely on rented honey bee hives during pollination periods, at a cost of as much as $150 per hive. Some crops require as many as four hives per acre. The practice cuts into grower profits and raises consumer prices.
A third generation blueberry farmer in Southeast Michigan, Larry Bodtke is one of the specialty crop farmers participating in ICP research. His family owned and operated Cornerstone Ag Enterprises farms 1,000 acres of blueberries in Michigan and 500 acres in Oregon and Washington.
"We need to get better pollination if we're to sustain at higher levels," Bodtke said.
That's where "plan bee" comes in. Bodtke's farming operation rents 2,000 honeybee hives annually at a cost of about $65 per hive, or roughly $130,000 a year. "The cost is definitely increasing," he said. "Five to six years ago we were paying $35 to $45 a hive."
Like other farms participating in the study, Cornerstone planted 2 acres of wildflowers near a 30-acre blueberry test plot. "We found out there's a multitude of native pollinators out there," Bodtke said. "Not just honeybees or bumble bees. I'm amazed at the number we have." A Michigan blueberry field can attract more than 112 native species during flowering periods, according to Isaacs.
But creating pollination zones is not as simple as it might seem. Soil conditions, crop spacing, and limited land can all be hurdles to implementation. "A lot of our fields are planted in ways making it hard to find land to plant flowers," said Bodtke. "If the land isn't planted in blueberries, it's woods or ponds."
Establishing an effective wildflower pollinator zone at the test site raised questions for Bodtke about the concept's efficiency as a business practice. "You always have to take into consideration the extra work," he said. "We're in the business of growing blueberries, not research. We'll weigh the benefits."
In California's Central Valley, Neal Williams of the University of California, Davis works with almond growers who are participating in the ICP study. California produces 80 percent of the world's almonds. Production requires 1.7 million honey bee hives a year, about 85 percent of all available commercial hives in the US.
"Even in modest numbers (of wild bees) we see glimmers of hope," said Williams, also a co-author of the bee map and co-director of the ICP. "There can be interesting synergy between nature and honey bees."
Now in its fourth year, ICP results are emerging. "What's really ringing a bell is that there's an increase in yield which can cover the cost of wildflower plantings," said Isaacs. "It's shown in four years you could get a positive effect."
In addition to increasing yields, incorporating bee diversity in fields and orchards provides greater reliability for pollination purposes because different bee species pollinate under different conditions. For example, some bees tolerate colder weather better than others. Pollinator diversity can potentially improve product quality as well, Williams said, by increasing animal pollination — animal pollination has been linked to higher nutrient content in certain crops. Of animal pollinators, bees are the heavy hitters who pollinate the largest variety of plant species.
What's good for native bee health and habitats may also be good for people too. Williams hopes that as growers come to value wild bee populations, they will also reduce pesticide use in an effort to protect bee habitats.
The initial ICP results are promising, but rebuilding a wild bee population won't happen overnight. Long-term studies will be needed to nurture native bee numbers and their helpful role to farmers.