Prairie strips for enhanced honey production: Can conservation improve apiculture?

Progress report for LNC22-469

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $248,659.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2025
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Matthew ONeal
Iowa State University
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Project Information


Efforts to counter wild bee declines and honey bee colony losses include adding native plants to improve floral resources. Landowners can use USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to help cover the cost of adding floral resources to farmland. Iowa is a key testing ground for novel practices that re-integrate native biodiversity into landscapes dominated by annual crops. Prairie strips (CP43) is a prime example of a CRP-funded practice that integrates modestly sized (5-7 acres) patches of native vegetation within commercial farms. This now nationwide practice was developed by ISU’s STRIPS project (Science Based Trails of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips; This practice prevents soil and nutrients (e.g. N, P, K) from leaving farms and entering watersheds, while increasing native flowering resources, pollinator abundance and diversity.

By increasing floral resources, prairie strips could be an untapped resource for honey bees.  Recently, we observed that honey bees produced 24% more honey when kept at farms with prairie strips. This research was conducted at a scale of 2-4 honey beehives, so questions remain if larger-scale beekeeping is sustainable with prairie strips.  Preliminary data from 2021 suggest this is possible- 20 beehives placed at three commercial farms with established prairie strips produced honey at a rate consistent with our earlier work. The USDA allows colonies on CRP land to support more sustainable beekeeping, but it is unclear if beekeepers know of and use these small patches of native, flowering vegetation.  We will expand upon these preliminary data with collaboration from commercial beekeepers to determine the economic sustainability of commercial scale production at farms with prairie strips.  Consumer theory suggests that when a product is bundled with desirable attributes, it becomes more attractive. We will also investigate honey consumer’s demand for, and willingness to pay for honey produced at a farm with prairie strips.

With collaboration from central Iowa beekeepers, we will explore if the prairie strip practice (CP43) consistently supports commercial-scale beekeeping. By expanding our initial research to include an economic assessment, we will determine if both the amount and source of honey produced can improve beekeeping. In other words, even if honey yield from a prairie strip site is not higher than what the beekeeper traditional observes, these sites could still be economically viable. Finally, to facilitate the use of land in CP43 we will produce a web-site to help landowners connect with beekeepers seeking new sites for their colonies.

Project Objectives:

We propose a 3-year study that will involve three objectives.

Objective 1: Determine how productive commercial scale beekeeping is at farms with prairie strips.

Objective 2: Economic analysis of beekeeping at prairie strips and estimate consumer value of prairie strip honey.

Objective 3. Create a web-based platform for connecting beekeepers with landowners who have established prairie strips.

Because our objectives around focused on both yield and value of honey, even if honey yield from a prairie strip site is not higher than what the beekeeper traditional observes, these sites could still be economically viable.


We received funding in 2023 that allowed us to work towards completing our first objective (Determine how productive commercial scale beekeeping is at farms with prairie strips.) The preliminary data for 2023 is summarized below.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Phil Ebert - Technical Advisor
  • Dean Coleman - Technical Advisor



This project is testing a general hypothesis that the general decline in honey bee productivity is due primarily to the availability of forage.  We predict that increasing the access to forage, specifically through the prairie strip practice will increase the productivity of honey bees. Preliminary data suggest that this is possible, but those data were collected from apiaries that were comprised of only 4 colonies.  In this experiment, we will determine if an improvement in productivity occurs when 24 colonies are kept at a farm with prairie strips.

The experiment conducted in objective 1 will determine if colonies kept at a farm with prairie strips are more productive than those kept at a beekeeper's apiary that does not have prairie strips. Our null hypothesis is that colony productivity does not differ by site type.

Materials and methods:

Objective 1- Determine how productive commercial scale beekeeping is at farms with prairie strips.

Participants: Drs. O’Neal, Toth and Tyndall will supervise a graduate student to collect data from the experiment described below. This includes collaboration with farmers participating in the STRIPS Project, the ISU Apiary (supported by co-PI Toth and Randall Cass) and two Iowan commercial beekeeper (see Letters of Support from Mr. Phil Ebert and Dean Coleman).


In years 1 and 2, we will build off our previous study but with two big differences; replicated, commercial-scale apiaries and collaboration with commercial beekeepers. This is possible because we will collaborate with two Iowa commercial beekeepers (Coleman, Ebert) and the ISU beekeeping program. Each will be assigned a site with established prairie strips and a control site that does not have prairie strips to test the hypothesis that prairie strip affects honey production. Each site will have 24 colonies, 20 from the beekeeper and four sentinel colonies from ISU.


Justification for 24-colony apiary size. The relationship between honey production and the number of colonies is rarely known for any system.  Models can estimate honey yield based on floral resources, often for only a single nectar source. To empirically determine this relationship by varying the number of colonies in an apiary would be resource intensive, time-consuming and may not resonate with beekeepers. Instead, we selected a constant apiary size based on the number of colonies our collaborating beekeepers and regional commercial beekeepers deploy in their own apiaries (Table 1).  Although a 24-colony apiary may be considered small to beekeepers outside of Iowa, it is relevant to our region, and still represents a 5-fold increase in size compared to our previous experiments. This increase creates the potential to determine if competition among colonies reduces the carrying capacity of a prairie strip to produce a substantial honey crop. Depending on our findings, future studies could further explore the costs and benefits of smaller or larger apiary sizes.

Table 1. Apiary size in central Iowa counties of Story, Tama, Webster and Wright from 2020 data posted on DriftWatch (

Apiary type

Mean + SEM (number of sites, range)


16.2 + 2.1 (31 sites, Range 2-32)


5.0 + 0.4 (53 sites, Range 2-15)

Queen production and pollination

300 (1, NA)

USDA Plant Introduction Station

20 + 1.3 (15-30)


Colony selection, apiary placement, and management. In April, we will assess all colonies post-overwintering condition and randomly assign twenty (20) to either a prairie strip site or a control site. This will produce an equivalent average starting colony size at each site. We will move colonies in May when the first floral bloom is underway (typically golden alexander and dandelion). Control sites will be randomly selected from those typically used by the beekeepers that are at least 5km from the prairie strip sites. Colonies will be placed on wooden pallets of 4 each,  1-2 m apart from each other at a field edge (Fig. 3).


All sites will receive a pallet of 4 colonies from ISU to serve as sentinels. Using ISU colonies will control for variation among the various beekeepers as they come from a shared genetic background. Sentinel colonies will be inspected to determine if additional hive boxes (honey supers) are needed to provide room for honey production. Weight of empty honey supers will be taken before adding to a colony, so that at harvest the change in weight can be attributed to honey. This measure of colony weight, estimated using a scale and subtracting equipment weight, will determine how colonies respond to site variation in nectar availability and resulting per colony honey harvest.  Inspections will include estimating Varroa mite populations and queen presence to determine need for management. We will share data from the sentinel colonies with our beekeeping collaborators, to aid them in decisions regarding honey production and mite management.  In coordination with our cooperator beekeepers, sentinel honey bee colonies will be treated prophylactically three times throughout the season (rotating through common miticides like oxalic acid, thymol, and amitraz) to prevent mite buildup, which can be highly destructive and negate positive effects of good nutrition.

Further details of this methodology are found in a previous experiment conducted by team members: Dolezal et al., 2019, Native habitat mitigates feast–famine conditions faced by honey bees in an agricultural landscape, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

In addition estimating honey yield from sentinel colonies, we will measure colony weight at harvest from four randomly selected commercial beekeeper colonies. We will also ask each beekeeper to provide a per site estimate of honey harvest (average lbs per colony). Finally, we will collect a sample of honey from each site for the consumer assessments in objective 2.

Sub-objective 1.1 Do colonies have more honey stores, larger worker populations, and healthier bees before winter?

Based on the ‘prairie rescue effect’ revealed in our earlier work, we expect prairie strips to act as a “natural supplement” for honey bees. We will test this hypothesis during the August harvest. Half of the sentinel colonies will receive supplemental feeding (sugar syrup), routinely given to bees after a harvest, the other half only empty hive boxes. In October, all of the sentinel colonies will be weighed. Comparing treated and untreated colonies at the prairie strips and control sites will reveal if the prairie rescue effect acts as a supplemental feeding.  Such a result could be of great interest to beekeepers as this could save beekeepers a substantial cost and labor.

The commercial beekeepers will collect their colonies and return them to their respective winter bee yards by October.  The sentinel colonies managed by ISU will also be collected and the final measure of weight, frames of honey stores, adult and brood populations will be assessed for each colony.

Objective 2. Economic analysis

Participants: Tyndall and Cass will supervise the graduate student to collect data for this objective.

Sub-objective 2.1 Economic analysis of beekeeping at prairie strips will be accomplished by creating comprehensive fixed and variable cost budgets of varying production scales for beekeeping enterprises utilizing prairie strips. Using these budgets and standard discounted cash flow techniques, we will assess potential Internal Rates of Return (IRR) across observed honey yields and a range of ancillary product prices (e.g., wax, queens, ‘nucs’, and pollination service fees). We will monetize various outcomes from objective 1 to determine potential changes to the costs of beekeeping. We hypothesize that monetized aspects of healthier honey bees will lower some variable costs of beekeeping, and regardless of an increase in honey yield, this will increase IRR. In other words, even if honey yield from a prairie strip site is not higher than what the beekeeper traditional observes, these sites could still be economically viable. We will conduct a sensitivity analysis to explore how financial outcomes vary across different production scales. Using data from this project and regional honey production reports, we will examine cost and revenue dynamics for beekeeping with prairie strips. Using trends in production cost and honey price, we will explore where production scale thresholds exist relative to what our beekeeper collaborators consider an acceptable rate of return.

Sub-objective 2.2 Measuring consumer assessment and value, of prairie strip honey

Consumer theory suggests that when a product is bundled with desirable attributes, it becomes more attractive. In a market place where consumers are exposed to many options, this bundling can increase the value of a given product. Marketing studies of honey have revealed how attributes such as honey origin, packaging, honey color, and taste affects consumer demand and their willingness to pay. Few studies have examined if the environmental or ethical methods of honey production affect consumer demand, and if messaging about these attributes are an important marketing component. In this sub-objective, we will investigate honey consumer’s demand for, and willingness to pay (WTP) for honey with different attributes (e.g. taste, aroma) from the following sources:

  • Honey produced at a farm with prairie strips.
  • Honey from our cooperating beekeepers other apiaries (i.e. control sites).
  • Honey produced at a site attached to a conservation goal (e.g. a solar farm).
  • Honey from a large grocery store chain with a label indicating a local source.
  • Honey from the same store with a label indicating an international source.
  • A monofloral honey (e.g. orange, buckwheat, neem) with a distinctive odor and taste.

To fully understand consumer interest in prairie strip honey, we will use a Vickery auction (VA) that employs a second-price, sealed-bid auction mechanism informed by previous experimental estimates of WTP for honey. This method was used successfully to determine the general response of consumers to locally produced honey (see Wu, S., et al. 2015. Consumer demand for local honey. Applied Economics, 47, 4377-4394)

In a VA, the highest bidder receives the auctioned product, but pays an amount equal to the second-highest bid. This approach requires each participant submit a bid equal to their actual price point for the product, independent of how others bid. The auction accounts for decisions made when consumers evaluate labelled jars of differentiated honey presented for tasting. Furthermore, participants will take a brief survey of their opinions and attitudes regarding honey, beekeeping, and conservation. This survey will also feature a best-worst scaling method to help us determine the cardinal order and preference for the various attributes being studied, thus providing additional insights into their WTP.

We will work with state beekeeping associations and farmer organizations (See letter of support from Practical Farmers of Iowa) to recruit adult participants, selecting those who self-report as being in the market for honey. These auctions will be conducted in years 2 and 3, taking place at farmers market, school campus’ and grocery stores. Each auction will be comprised of a small group of honey consumers (n=10-15 per group) and will continue until we have ~ 100 participants. We will use the participation incentive structure of Wu et al. (2015) where each participant receives $40 total: 1) $20 simply to participate; and 2) $20 to use as their budget for bidding on the various honeys being offered. They receive the honey they bid on, plus whatever money remains from their budget. The initial $20 participation payment and our screening seeking motivated honey buyers will reduce strategic bidding behavior. Based on the incentive structure, we will use our “honey revenue” to recruit more participants until the incentive fund is exhausted.

At the end of the VA process, we will know how much consumers are willing to pay for honey produced at a site with prairie strips. We will also learn how valuable consumers consider this honey in comparison to the typical honey produced by our cooperating beekeepers and honey typically purchased and large, grocery store chains (e.g. Hy-vee, Kroger, etc).

Objective 3. Connecting beekeepers with landowners.

The USDA and FSA allow beekeepers access to land enrolled in CRP for beekeeping (, but because CRP is on private land, location information is not publicly available. Our Co-PI, Extension Specialist Cass, receives multiple inquiries from landowners that believe their land has superb honey bee habitat and are searching for beekeepers interested in maintaining apiaries on their property. We will develop extension and outreach programming that can build on the type of connection demonstrated in Objective 1.  Specifically, we will work with ISU’s web team (See letter of support from VanDyk) to create an online platform where landowners can offer their land as a potential site for an apiary to beekeepers in need of new locations. We will model this website on those developed by the state of Iowa to facilitate connections between landowners with hunters (See letter of support from Representative Garrett Gobble).


Research results and discussion:

2023 update:

We recruited a MS student, Jarod Perez, who completed his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M.  He was admitted to the graduate program in Entomology at ISU.  He conducted the field work portion of the research summarized below.  He will conduct objectives 1 and 2 per the original grant.

We also recruited three farmers who own land with prairie strips. We are not sharing the identity of these farmers/landowners yet.  These collaborators are private citizens and have volunteered to allow us access to their farms with prairie strips. As the project continues, we will discuss with them if and to what extant they are willing to share their identity with SARE and the general public.

Finally, we recruited three commercial beekeepers, two who operate independent of Iowa State University. Their identity is described below.

We completed a full year of collaborative research with two commercial scale beekeepers in central Iowa. We conducted the experiment outlined in the initial proposal for objective 1. This included deploying apiaries of 24 colonies at sites with prairie strips that were established with help from the STRIPS project per the USDA CRP's prairie strip practice (CP 43).

To accomplish this experiment we collaborated with Phil Ebert of Ebert honey ( and Dean Coleman of Sweet Endeavors ( Each beekeeper provided us with 40 colonies, 20 kept at a site with prairie strips and an additional 20 kept at a site selected by the beekeeper.  They also allowed us to keep 4 honey bee colonies, referred to as sentinel colonies, at all sites. These sentinel colonies allowed us to observe the difference between the two site types without the additional variation of management differences among the beekeepers.

We also worked with Randall Cass, the beekeeping extension specialist at ISU, who was our third commercial beekeeper.

In total, we had three beekeepers, each keeping bees at a farm with prairie strips (referred to as a strips site) and one without (referred to as a control site).  At each site were 20 colonies managed by a beekeeper and four sentinel colonies managed by the graduate student.

In general, we learned the following:

  • Sentinel colonies weight did not differ between site types (Figure 1) figure 1 2024 LNC22 469.
  • Beekeeper colonies were heavier when kept at a farm with prairie strips than at sites picked by them (Figure 2) figure 2 2024 LNC22 469.
  • Overall, more honey was harvested from sites with prairie strips from the beekeepers colonies, but this was not experienced by all beekeepers. 
Table 1.    
Beekeeper ID honey (lbs) from prairie strip site honey (lbs) control site
1 0 0
2 203 357
3 632 284
  • We harvested honey from sites with prairie strips and marketed it as a stand alone product at ISU.  This marketing is promoting the CRP prairie strip practice to a broad audience, demonstrating how conservation can improve this form of agriculture. See attached PDF of slide set being prepared for presentations in 2024 (see From prairie to honey)
  • There was significant variation in how the three beekeepers managed their hives.  Going into the 2024 growing season, we will work with the beekeepers to standardize management so that we can account for this variation.
  • We are planning on sharing our preliminary results at scientific meetings and extension events in 2024.


Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

We are training an MS student through this project.  In addition, we are using this project in several classes at Iowa State University ("Introduction to Entomology and Pest Management" (ENT 376, 30 students in spring 2024); "Beekeeping" (ENT 358, 50 students in fall 2023).

Project Activities

Objective 1- field experiment with beekeepers and commercial farms with priarie strips

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

125 Farmers participated
100 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

"Can prairie strips contribute to more sustainable beekeeping?" as part of the "Student Research Blitz", September 10th 2023, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Fun Day, Grand Island, Nebraska,  ~50 in person

"Can prairie strips contribute to more sustainable beekeeping?" Sustainability and Plant Health Field Day, July 11th 2023, Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station,  ~50 in person

"Can prairie strips contribute to more sustainable beekeeping?". 2023 ISU Fruit and Vegetable Field Day, August 8th 2023, Iowa State University Horticulture Research Station,  ~125 in person

Learning Outcomes

2 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • We have taught our two beekeeper collaborators about the prairie strip practice and increased their interest in coupling their operations with it.

Project Outcomes

5 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Key practices changed:
  • 3 beekeepers and two landowners have cooperated to keep honey bees at farms with prairie strips. Previous to this project, this interaction did not occur.

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Success stories:

The lead PI (O'Neal) and a coPI (Cass) were recently award a grant through the Department of Energy (DOE) to explore how beekeeping could be practiced at solar farms. This project is part of a public-private partnership with Alliant Energy, which has resulted in a 10 acre solar farm on the campus of ISU that will employ some of the principles being studied in this grant. Specifically, we will explore if prairie strips can be grown around and under solar panels, and determine if honey bees utilize these resources in this novel setting.

This project has been summarized in the agricultural media (

We will start the solar project during the 2024 growing season, which will include sentinel colonies similar to those used in this project.  We will compare the honey produced at the solar farm to that produced at our prairie strip and beekeeper sites used in this project.

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.