Integrating social and natural science to improve pollination outreach and education for farmers

Final Report for GNE13-055

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2013: $13,545.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: University of Maine
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Samuel Hanes
University of Maine
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Project Information

Summary:

In the spring and summer of 2014, four free pollination workshops were held around the state of Maine to provide apple, lowbush blueberry, and squash farmers with hands-on training identifying, monitoring, and enhancing wild bees.  A total of 38 people attended the workshops where they learned about: (1) the major pollinators, their life history, and identification; (2) conservation and protection of wild and commercial bee pollinators; and (3) methodology for estimating fruit set, fruit drop, and pollinator field abundance.  Surveys and semi-structured interviews were used to evaluate the workshops and provide recommendations for improving future outreach and education on sustainable pollination management practices.  Analysis of the pre- and post-workshop surveys and interviews reveals that participants plan to implement more pollination practices following the workshop than they did before.  In particular, participants indicated increased plans to implement two practices in 2015: (1) monitoring their wild bee populations and (2) assessing wild and managed bees’ contribution to fruit set.  Information about the workshops and survey findings were presented at two conferences and one farmer event in 2014, and one farmer event in 2015.  Three products will result from this project: (1) a Cooperative Extension bulletin for farmers on sustainable pollination management practices, including four case studies of farms in Maine that are experimenting with wild bee habitat enhancement; (2) a peer reviewed journal article on methods for exposing farmers and fishermen to diverse management practices; and (3) a technical report geared toward Extension workers on tools for helping farmers adopt diverse pollination management practices.  Overall, workshop participants provided positive evaluations of the workshops and said they found them valuable and informative.  We hope that the combination of these workshops and the related products will help Maine fruit growers move toward more sustainable pollination practices in the future. 

Introduction:

Many fruits and vegetables are completely dependent on insects for pollination.  Farmers in the Northeast are increasingly reliant on commercial honeybees (Apis mellifera) to provide this ecosystem service.  For example, in 2014 Maine imported more than 80,000 honeybee hives for lowbush blueberry pollination, second only to almond pollination in California.  Many farmers and scientists have begun to question the sustainability of relying primarily on honeybees for pollination, as evidence shows that bee populations around the world are declining due to pesticide use, habitat loss, diseases and parasitic pests.  The declining health of bees has caused the price of commercial honeybees to increase significantly for many important Northeast crops, such as blueberries.  Researchers are now looking at ways to secure pollination for farmers through integrated use of honeybees and wild (i.e., native) bees. A recent study published in Science by Garibaldi et al. (2013) found wild insects to be universally more efficient pollinators than honeybees, as wild insect visitation enhanced fruit set by twice as much as honeybee visitation across 41 crop systems throughout the world.  This and other research makes a strong case for increased conservation and utilization of wild pollinators, yet little research exists on the obstacles farmers face to increasing their use of wild pollinators.

This project aimed to maximize the use of wild bees as crop pollinators in the Northeast by integrating social and natural science to improve pollination outreach for farmers.  Four free pollination workshops were held for apple, blueberry, and mixed vegetable farmers throughout Maine.  The workshops focused on bees because they provide the majority of pollination in these cropping systems.  During a two hour workshop participants were introduced to empirically-tested methods for identifying, monitoring, and enhancing wild bee populations on their farms.  The workshops involved classroom and hands-on field components.  The influence of the workshops on growers’ management practices was assessed by surveys and follow-up interviews with a sample of workshop participants.  The assessment allowed us to identify barriers to sustainable pollination through integrated use of both commercial and wild bees.  Importantly, we also identified growers who are overcoming these barriers and interviewed them to aid us in developing products to help growers overcome barriers and transition toward more secure, risk-averse, sustainable pollination management practices.

Project Objectives:

The goal of this SARE project was to identify ways to improve outreach and education for farmers in the Northeast so that they have the knowledge and resources necessary to secure sustainable crop pollination.  Four objectives guided this goal.  

Objective 1: Introduce a minimum of 60 farmers to wild bee conservation and utilization strategies. Four free pollination workshops were held for apple, lowbush blueberry, and squash growers during the spring and summer of 2014.  In total, 38 growers and members of agricultural groups attended the workshops.  This was below the goal of 60 farmers, however, we believe that participants received exemplary hand-on training in how to assess their pollinator force and how to enhance wild bee habitat.  In the original proposal we stated that we would host three workshops.  We added an additional workshop for lowbush blueberry growers so that we could reach growers in the two main blueberry growing regions in Maine.  This additional workshop was held at no extra cost.

Objective 2:  Document the obstacles farmers face to implementing wild bee conservation and utilization strategies following the pollination workshops.  This objective was accomplished by conducting pre- and post-workshop surveys.  We also conducted four follow-up interviews with workshop participants (two apple and two blueberry growers) to document their successes and challenges identifying, monitoring, and enhancing wild bee habitat around their farms.  

Objective 3: Identify ways to improve future Extension outreach and education programs on wild bee conservation and utilization.  This objective was accomplished by analysis of the survey and interview data.  Two products were created to share our findings: (1) a peer-reviewed article geared toward researchers and Extension educators, and (2) a technical report geared towards Extension workers.

Objective 4: Engage in outreach to promote discussion and reflection among researchers, farmers, and Extension personnel on the barriers to integrating wild bees into pollination management practices and ways to overcome these barriers.  We presented findings from this project to an audience of approximately 150 farmers and industry people at the 2014 Maine Wild Blueberry Field Day held at Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro, Maine in July, 2014, and approximately 100 farmers and researchers at the 2015 Maine Wild Blueberry Field Day.  We also presented findings from the workshops at the North American Blueberry Researchers and Extension Workers (NABREW) Conference in Atlantic City, NJ in July, 2014, and the 20th International Conference for the Society for Human Ecology held in Bar Harbor, Maine in October, 2014.  Additionally, we are producing a Cooperative Extension bulletin geared toward growers that will include information on how to identify, monitor, and enhance wild bees.  The bulletin features case studies of four growers (two apple and two blueberry) who attended the workshops, and is meant as s farmer-to-farmer tool to help growers identify ways to integrate wild bees into their pollination management practices.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

The four workshops were held in three different locations across Maine during May and June, 2014.   The workshops were advertised on UMaine Cooperative Extension websites, the University of Maine calendar of events, the NESARE calendar of events, and through the newsletters for Maine blueberry and apple growers.  Each workshop provided hands-on training in various management practices, including: (1) bee identification, (2) measuring the impact of wild bees on fruit set and yield, (3) assessing pollinator abundance and diversity to inform management decisions, and (4) conserving or improving wild bee habitat.

At the beginning of the workshop co-PI’s Hanes and Collum briefly described the project and asked all participants to complete a pre-workshop survey.  The survey included questions about: (1) participants’ current pollination strategies, (2) intentions to use the strategies presented at the workshop in the following season, (3) perceived difficulty of implementing the pollination strategies, and (4) perceptions of commercial and wild bee efficacy.  Attendees were asked to provide their contact information so that we could mail them a post-survey following the workshop.  All surveys were kept confidential by using a number code instead of names. Prior to the workshops, 6 key informants were asked to review and provide feedback on the survey instruments to ensure that the content was clear.  Key informants included Extension personnel and blueberry growers.

During the first hour of each workshop Dr. Frank Drummond of the University of Maine introduced participants to bees’ life histories, talked about wild bee identification, and explained how to assess bee abundance and contribution to fruit set and yield.  During the second hour of the workshop we took participants out into farm fields so they could practice identifying and counting bees and measuring bee visitation to flowers.  Every participant was given hand-outs on the life histories of wild bees, a poster of Maine native bees, and a resin block with specimen bees to aid identification.  All workshops followed this format.

Two months after the workshops pre-survey respondents were mailed a follow-up survey. Respondents provided information about their use of various pollination practices following the workshops and their plans to use the practices in 2015.   They also provided feedback about the workshops and indicated future outreach and education in which they would be interested in participating.  The post-surveys were administered using the Dillman Tailored Design Method (2008).  First, a letter was mailed to each participant reminding them that they would receive a follow-up survey regarding the pollination workshops within a week.  A week later, a post-survey was mailed to each participant.  A postcard reminder was sent to all non-respondents one week later urging them to complete and return the survey.  Finally, a second wave of surveys was mailed to all participants that had not yet responded within four weeks of the survey mailing.

To further document the obstacles farmers face to implementing wild bee conservation and utilization practices, we identified and interviewed four workshop participants (two apple and two blueberry growers) four months after the workshops.  The interviews took place at the participants’ homes or farms and allowed them to discuss in detail their experiences implementing wild bee enhancement strategies, obstacles they have encountered, and how they have responded or plan to respond to these obstacles.  The interviews lasted between 1-2 hours and were recorded using a digital voice recorder and transcribed by a professional transcription service. 

Research results and discussion:

On May 21st, 2014 we held the first pollination workshop for apple growers at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, Maine.  Seven apple growers and three agricultural agency representatives attended the two hour workshop.  The second and third workshops were designed specifically for wild blueberry growers.  The first was held on May 28th, 2014, at Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro, Maine. Four blueberry growers and four agricultural agency representatives attended the workshop.  The second was held on June 3rd, 2014, at Seven Tree View Farm in Warren, Maine. Seventeen blueberry growers and three agricultural agency people attended. 

With all but one exception, the project developed as planned.  We originally proposed to offer three pollination workshops, one each for apple, blueberry, and squash farmers.  We decided to add a second workshop for blueberry growers, at no added cost, to reach blueberry growers in both major growing regions of the state (for a total of four workshops).  Attendance at the apple and blueberry workshops was satisfactory.  Unfortunately, no one attended the workshop designed for squash growers held at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, Maine.  This was disappointing, however, we suspect that it occurred because poor weather conditions forced us to reschedule the workshop twice.  One challenge of the workshops was that they required good weather so that farmers could go outside and get hands-on experience monitoring bees on flower blossoms in farm fields.  Unfortunately, due to a rainy spring, three of the four workshops had to be rescheduled to rain dates.  We also suspect that the lack of turnout at the squash workshop had to do with the fact that squash growers currently do not receive as much outreach as apple and blueberry growers, so have little previous exposure to such events.  Despite this, overall, the first three workshops were very successful.  Although attendance was lower than we had hoped, farmers were able to get hands-on experience identifying and counting bees in the field.  All of the participants provided positive evaluations of the workshops and said they found them valuable and informative.

In total, 19 blueberry growers completed pre-workshop surveys about their pollination practices, and 11 completed post-workshop surveys about the practices they implemented following the workshop, the challenges/successes they experienced, their plans to use various pollination practices in the future, and their assessment of the workshops.  Seven apple growers completed pre-workshop surveys.  Because Maine apple growers have not previously been surveyed about their pollination management practices, and because the seven apple workshop participants are only a small percentage of growers in the state, we also mailed the pre-workshop survey to apple growers on the Maine State Pomological Society mailing list.  Thirty apple growers completed the mail survey, for a total of 37 surveys detailing apple growers’ pollination practices.  The Maine State Pomological Society paid for the mailing, so no additional cost was billed to SARE.  Only the blueberry growers’ pre-/post- survey responses were sufficient for statistical analysis.  The results are as follows.

Respondents were asked how effective they think wild bees are for pollinating their crop, on a five-point scale from very ineffective to very effective (Table 1). Overall, 74% of respondents said they think wild bees are somewhat effective to very effective.

Despite positive perceptions of wild bees’ effectiveness, more than 40% (n=8) of respondents felt they would never be able to get sufficient pollination from wild bees alone, and only 11% (n=2) felt they could get sufficient pollination from wild bees alone every year (Table 2). 

The survey contained a list of pollination management practices—other than stocking commercial honeybees or bumblebees—and respondents were asked to indicate whether they regularly use each practice, whether they tried the practice in the past but discontinued it, or whether they never used the practice at all.  They were also asked to indicate which practices they planned to use in 2015 (Table 3).  The most commonly used practices were: altering pesticides to avoid harming pollinators (88.2%; n=15); avoiding mowing wildflowers to provide food for pollinators (41.2%; n=7); and leaving standing deadwood for pollinators (38.9%; n=7).

More than half of respondents (53.3%; n=8) said that they planned to identify different kinds of wild bees in their fields next season, and 40% (n=6) said they planned to estimate bees’ contribution to fruit-set in their crops next year.  These two management practices were the focus of the pollination workshops.  Aside from these two practices, intention to use the pollination management practices listed on the survey was low among respondents (Table 3). 

Respondents’ were also asked to indicate how easy or difficult it would be to identify wild bees, monitor the size of wild bee populations, and estimate bees’ contribution to fruit-set, on a scale from very easy to very difficult (Table 4).  The high number of “neutral” and “not sure” responses suggests that some growers are uncertain about the time or skill required to implement these management practices.  Furthermore, approximately 47% (n=9) of respondents indicated that estimating bees’ contribution to fruit-set would be difficult or very difficult, and 42% (n=8) said the same of monitoring the size of the wild bee population in their fields.

Research conclusions:

It is difficult to statistically measure the impact of the workshops on farmers’ pollination management practices.  However, analysis of the blueberry growers’ pre- and post-workshop surveys reveals that participants planned to implement more pollination practices following the workshop than they did before.  In particular, survey respondents indicated increased plans to implement two practices in 2015: (1) monitoring their wild bee populations and (2) assessing wild and managed bees’ contribution to fruit set. 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The most significant contributions and outcomes from this project will come from three publications: (1) a Cooperative Extension bulletin geared toward growers, (2) a peer-reviewed article geared toward researchers and Extension educators, and (3) a technical report geared towards Extension workers.

The Cooperative Extension bulletin geared toward growers will synthesize information on pollination practices to help farmer’s diversify their pollination sources and reduce their risk.  The bulletin, tentatively titled “Identifying, Monitoring, and Enhancing Wild Bees in Apple and Blueberry Fields,” will include the following sections:  (I) Introduction: Why Diversify Your Pollination Management Practices, (II) Identifying Wild Bees in Maine, (III) Monitoring Bee Activity in Your Fields, (IV) Promoting Wild Bees through Habitat Enhancement, and (V) Farmer-to-Farmer: Case Studies from around the State.  The case studies profile the pollination management practices employed on four farms (two apple and two blueberry) in Maine and will expose apple and blueberry growers to strategies that have worked for their peers.  We believe farmers will benefit greatly from seeing what bee conservation practices their peers have tried or are currently attempting on their farms.  Three of the case studies are complete and attached to this report.  The bulletin is scheduled to be completed and published on the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website in the fall of 2015.  At that time we will provide SARE with a finalized copy of the bulletin.

The peer-reviewed journal article is tentatively titled “Social science research in agricultural and aquaculture diversification training classes” and will be submitted to the Journal of Rural Social Sciences in September 2015.  This article addresses the question “What can social scientists contribute to classes designed to help farmers and fishermen diversify either their practices or their products for enhanced sustainability and security?”  Upon publication of the article, we will provide SARE with a copy.

The technical report was presented at the North American Blueberry Research and Extension Workers (NABREW) conference in July, 2014, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was published in the 2014 Proceedings of the North American Blueberry Research and Extension Workers Association Annual Meeting.  A copy of the technical report is attached to this report.

It is our hope that these products will help give farmers the tools and knowledge they need to move toward more sustainable, risk-averse pollination management. Based on current literature and our previous research, we consider “sustainable pollination management” to be management that actively draws on more than one source for pollination in order to reduce risk. Additionally, sustainable pollination management includes efforts to protect and promote wild pollinators, which serve as a critical form of pollination insurance for farmers.  A sustainable pollination management approach might include stocking both commercial bumblebees and honeybees while also planting bee friendly plants, reducing pesticide applications, or allowing marginal land to grow up in wildflowers to provide a continuous pollen and nectar source for wild bees.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

Farmers’ adoption of the pollination management practices presented at the pollination-workshops is documented in the survey results presented in section 5 of this report, as well as in the attached case study profiles.  Additionally, blueberry-grower workshop-participants provided written feedback on the workshops in their post-surveys.

When asked “What were the main challenges you experienced when you implemented or tried to implement the things you learned at the workshop?” the most frequently listed challenge was finding time to implement the new practices.   One respondent wrote, “I just simply don’t have time.”  Other respondents expressed that it was difficult to identify different bees and to use the recommended method that was taught at the workshop for counting bees to assess their contribution to fruit set.  Other growers said it was difficult to determine whether wild bees or commercial honeybees were pollinating more flowers in their field.  One grower expressed that it was challenging to “systematically record wild bee visits to the blueberry fields,” however, they said they “plan to do this in a more comprehensive manner in 2015.” One grower observed that: “Many of the things I learned will not impact this year’s crop. The impact will need to be judged over time.”

When asked “In your opinion, what was the most valuable part of the pollination workshop you attended this past spring or summer?” most growers reported that the tools they received (such as the resin bee-specimen blocks) and the practices they learned for identifying bees was the most valuable part of the workshop.  A similar number of growers reported that the most valuable part of the workshops was the field demonstration, where they practiced identifying and counting the different types of wild pollinators they observed.  Other growers said they found learning about the life cycle of flowers and wild bees to be very valuable.  Many growers said it was valuable to learn empirical methods for monitoring and measuring the contribution of wild and commercial bees to fruit set and yield.  One grower wrote, “Learning about monitoring and how to assess fruit set was the most valuable [part of the wokshop]. Now I just need to make it happen.”

Participants were also asked to list the least valuable part of the pollination workshop. Almost all responded that they were happy with the program and had no constructive feedback to offer.

For example, one grower wrote “My memory of the two hours at the workshop at Dolham's Farm was that the whole program was quite useful and informative.” One valuable piece of feedback was that it was difficult for growers to see technology that was projected during the classroom session of the workshop.  Another participant said the workshop design seemed to assume that all participating growers produce fruit for commercial purposes, but that assumption did not apply to them.

For future workshops or trainings, some respondents recommended that workshop participants be given more time out in fruit fields to practice identifying, monitoring, and counting wild bees.  This requires an effective back-up plan for rescheduling if weather conditions are not ideal for field-based learning.   

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Though most Maine apple growers depend on a mix of wild and managed bees for crop pollination, stocking commercial bees during bloom remains the dominant pollination management strategy practiced by more than three quarters of Maine lowbush blueberry growers.  Findings from the workshop survey and previous research suggests that—beyond stocking commercial honeybees or bumblebees—few growers are implementing other pollination management practices, such as monitoring their bee populations or actively managing their fields to enhance wild bees.  Respondents did express interest in some of the alternative practices, yet expressed uncertainty about the value of the practices and time and skill required to implement them.  We conclude that further outreach and training is needed for growers who wish to implement additional practices to improve their decision-making about pollination management.  Specifically, we recommend further training on: (1) monitoring wild bee populations, and (2) estimating wild and commercial bees’ contribution to fruit-set.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.