Promoting sustainable crop pollination by wild bees through farmer outreach and education

Final Report for ONE07-077

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2007: $9,330.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $7,081.00
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Neal Williams
Bryn Mawr College
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Project Information

Summary:

Insect pollination is critical to the production of fruit and vegetable crops throughout the Northeast. Historically pollination has relied on managed honey bees; however, wild bees also can be important pollinators for many crops. Recent declines in honeybees from disease and changes in management have raised concern about the sustainability of pollination service. By raising farmers’ awareness of the importance of wild pollinators for crop production, and providing clear, practical guidelines for promoting wild pollinator populations on farms, we hoped to increase the sustainability of regional fruit and vegetable production. We developed print and web-based outreach materials with explicit input from growers, extension specialists and conservation mangers. These materials were distributed to extension offices and provided directly to growers during meetings. At the meetings we also delivered talks and discussed with growers the strategies for promoting wild pollinator populations. Materials were prepared based on field data collected in our local region (New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania) and the SARE project allowed us to complete the critical outreach component to add much greater relevance to our research programs.

Introduction:

A Role for Native Pollinators

Farmers understand the role of pollinators in crop production but lack information about the importance of wild pollinators and about farm management practices that promote them. Our goal was to provide practical summaries of the wild bees that are important pollinators of regional crop and guidelines for plant and nesting resources to support these bee species.

Fruit and vegetable production often requires consistent pollination by insects, primarily bees. This pollination is performed by managed colonies of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and also by a largely underappreciated set of unmanaged native bee species. The number of commercially available honey bee hives has declined in recent years, due in part to severe problems with parasites and disease. The decline in managed honey bee colonies has already led to pollination shortfalls for several important crops and there is uncertainty about whether the honey bee, which has been the cornerstone of pollination for nearly all vegetable and fruit crops, can provide sufficient pollination that is stable over time. Recent research in the Northeast shows that wild bee species can provide the majority of pollination in some areas (Winfree et al 2007), but despite research progress on crop pollination by wild bees, and on the factors that affect their populations, the relevant information is generally not transferred to farmers – the people who could most benefit from it. If farmers knew how to support wild pollinators on their farms, they could make the pollination of their crops more sustainable. The environment as a whole would also benefit because farms support wild bee populations, which also pollinate plants in native habitats. Funding to support such farmer efforts is becoming available through the Agricultural Management Assistance Program of the Farm Bill.

Project Objectives:

1. Raise farmer awareness of the utility of unmanaged native bees as pollinators of fruit and vegetable crops in the Northeast Region.

2. Provide information about how to promote populations of native bee pollinators for farmers and conservation managers

Our specific performance targets included two main deliverable products (1) printed outreach pamphlets and (2) web materials that could be used by farmers and land managers. These materials were to include summaries of the most important regional crop pollinators and crops they pollinate, lists of plant species that are the most important food resources for pollinators, guidelines for promoting nesting and restoration of pollinator habitat. An additional target was to involve regional growers in the development of the outreach materials. A final target was to distribute our outreach pamphlet and give informal presentations and formal talks to growers at local and regional meetings.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Barry Davis
  • Ann Dixon
  • Scott Guiser
  • Eric Longsdale
  • Emily McGlynn
  • Gary McKewn
  • Rachael Winfree

Research

Materials and methods:

To identify primary pollinators of regional crops we used our own data from four years detailing the visitation patterns to flowers of several fruit and vegetable crops. Where we lacked data for some crop species we used published studies to identify the most important pollinators for each crop. We condensed our data and those from other studies into a common ranked list of pollinators for each crop that could be easily interpreted by farmers. Once the primary lists were developed we solicited feedback from a core group of regional growers and from state extension agents to identify strengths and weakness of content and its presentation. We then used the stakeholder comments to develop final drafts of the material.

To identify key floral resources we used two years of data on bee visitation to native and exotic flowering plants from grassland / old fields, woodlands, pinelands (in blueberry and cranberry farming region), and farm sites to compile lists of pollinator-supporting plants for use in buffer plantings and set aside areas within and surrounding farms. We then used data from the USDA Plants Database (http://plants.USDA.gov/) and published literature to identify bloom periods for all species. We solicited feedback from our growers and also from conservationists and the New Jersey NRCS Plant Materials Center. We incorporated their comments to produce our final lists.

During the development of our outreach materials we presented results from our research on crop pollination by native bees and summaries of “pollinator-supporting” plant species to growers and managers at multiple local/regional meetings. At several of these meetings we also distributed drafts of our outreach pamphlet to solicit feedback from stakeholders.

Research results and discussion:

We successfully created each of the desired deliverable products proposed in our SARE grant. The outreach pamphlet “Native Bee Benefits” (A copy of the document is attached to this report) has been distributed to local extension. It has also been made available in PDF format to regional extension offices, through Rutgers (the State University of New Jersey: see link below) the Midatlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (www.maarec.psu.edu/alternativePollinators.html) and the national eXtension http://preview.extension.org/bee%20health). Several additional groups have requested copies, most notably individuals working with sustainable farming in the city of Philadelphia. In additional to the pamphlet itself the process of development provided valuable educational enrichment for students at Bryn Mawr College. One student, Ms. Emily McGlynn, used the development the pamphlet as part of her senior research experience. This proved a very rewarding experience for her and my research group.

During compilation of the plant lists we solidified a new quantitative approach to identify important plants for pollinators. This approach derives from one pioneered for other uses by (Johnson 1980). We will present the method and compare its results with other approaches in a research publication that we hope will serve as a template for future researchers in our field. To our knowledge ours is one of only two plant lists to use standardized quantitative methods for determining the best plants for promoting pollinators (see also http://nativeplants.msu.edu/results.htm, Tuell et al. 2008)
An additional product of the grant will be a webpage housed through the Xerces Society for Conservation biology that will be a portal from which to access plant lists and information on important crop pollinators throughout North America (see details below). This web page was not an original part of the SARE proposal, but grew from a common goal of our research program and mission of the Xerces Society.

Grower feedback was an important milestone in our project and proved to be very valuable for focusing the final content of the outreach documents and also finalizing their format. The interactions we had with growers also were useful to us as researchers approaching our stakeholder group. Despite uniform interest from growers, our greatest challenge was obtaining detailed feedback from them on our outreach materials. We enlisted five individuals in the proposal to serve as our core group but only two of these attended our roundtable discussion. One other and our main extension contact provided valuable written comments. The farmers who declined to comment all said they were very interested but could not work the meeting into their schedules, even thought the time table for meetings was set to avoid the growing season. In future we would organize these meetings differently and offer financial compensation only as a payout for attending the meeting. Detailed feedback also proved difficult to obtain from growers who received handouts at regional meetings. We need to include a more explicit action plan for obtaining feedback from these venues.

Research conclusions:

Several of our results have already had practical impact. The plant lists developed as part of our project were used by New Jersey NRCS to inform its choice of plant species that are being tested for restoration planting. These species are currently being grown at the Plant Materials Center in Cape May, NJ to determine best growing practices. The original web materials we produced have been replaced with a simple PDF document and also incorporated into a more comprehensive page housed at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (www.xerces.org). This transition makes the web-based material more permanent and also allows us to expand the scope of its impact. It will be a gateway to access pollinator-friendly plant lists that can be used to support crop pollinators throughout North America.
We cannot yet assess whether the information we produced has lead to changes in awareness or “best practice” by regional growers and a follow up survey would be a highly valuable next step. Qualitatively the response from farmers has been uniformly positive. Pollination and sustainability are of great interest to growers and they have been excited to get our print materials.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We developed material to target farmers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; however, much of the information will transfer directly throughout the Northeast Region and Mid-Atlantic States and be useable by land managers and conservation organizations. Our approach had three components: implementation of web materials, delivery of printed materials, and direct presentation at growers meetings.

Web materials. A PDF version of our outreach packet has been made available through Rutgers University (at Winfree’s research web site, www.rci.rutgers.edu/~insects/winfree.htm, and also at a general Rutgers University farming extension web site, http://njsustainingfarms.rutgers.edu/html/1.ssf-pollinators.html).
Print materials. Printed material is contained in a single outreach pamphlet “Native Bee Benefits”. We worked with state cooperative extension and growers to develop a user-friendly pamphlet containing biological information on bees known to be important crop pollinators in the region, including a table of which pollinators are most important for regional crops. The pamphlet also contains a list of native plants that are preferred floral resources for crop-pollinating bees, an overview of nesting requirements for the different bee species and a list of funding sources for farmers interested in promoting native bee habitat on their farms
Grower/ Manager Meetings. In addition to providing materials, we have spoken at regional meetings about the role of native pollinators in regional crop pollination

• 2008 NJ Agricultural Experiment Station Board of Managers meeting, New NJAES Pollination Research Initiatives, 29 September 2008

• American Cranberry Growers’ Association annual meeting, Chatsworth, NJ, Crop pollination by native bees in New Jersey and prospects for studies of cranberry, 21 August 2008

• New York Farmers, New York, NY, The importance of bees in crop pollination, 12 February 2008

• Delaware Agricultural Week, Dover, DE, Native bees as watermelon pollinators, 8 January 2008
• Rutgers Ag Field Day 2009, Entomology Dept booth handed out brochures.

• MAAREC (Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research & Extension Consortium), invited speaker at annual meeting, 9 April 2009

• Future Farmers of America / Agricultural Pollinators Forum, National Meeting in Washington DC, 25 February 2009

• Blueberry growers’ meeting, Hammonton, NJ, Crop pollination by native bees in New Jersey and prospects for studies of blueberry, 17 February 2009
• Atlantic Coast Agricultural Convention / New Jersey Vegetable Growers annual meeting. 14 January 2009

• 2009 Southeast PA Vegetable Growers Meeting. 45 growers from areas representing about 750 acres of production.

• Outreach will culminate with the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention February 2010. We will distribute preliminary printing of our materials at this time. A presentation will help reinforce the information provided in the materials we distribute.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

As reported above, it is too early to assess whether the information we produced has led to widespread changes in awareness or “best practice” and a follow up survey would be a highly valuable next step. Qualitatively response from farms has been uniformly positive. Pollination and sustainability are of great interest to growers and they have been excited to get our print materials.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

1. The data used to compile of plant lists came primarily from oldfield sites within one part of the Northeast Region. Additional data on plant use from neighboring subregions and from more diverse habitats will help to strengthen our recommendations. Broader data sets on plant use on-farm and natural habitats.

2. A next step in making our plant lists of greater practical value to growers and conservation managers is to assess the cultivation conditions necessary for each species. Winfree has begun this effort in collaboration with the USDA-NRCS in New Jersey. Testing of plants and specific study of pollinator attraction in controlled settings would make a highly valuable next research topic. Such data could then be incorporated into the criteria for ranking plants.

3. Although we included as much information as was available on nesting requirements for important native bees, such data are generally lacking. Nesting needs represent the next critical step for understanding the stability of pollinator populations in agricultural areas and in natural habitats.

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.