Improving Pollination in the Southwest: Testing the on farm feasibility of establishing and managing the carpenter bee for multiple crop farming systems

Final Report for SW00-053

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $32,150.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $6,000.00
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Principal Investigator:
Jim Donovan
Native Seeds SEARCH/University of Arizona
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Project Information

Abstract:

Pollination, an essential process ensuring the productivity of agricultural yields, is currently under threat by a myriad of causes, ranging from habitat fragmentation to the overuse of pesticides. Habitats for wild bees (the most diverse and important group responsible for crop pollination) can be improved on and around farms to increase pollination services and prevent potential losses in crop yields.

The native southern Arizona carpenter bee is being tested as a potential crop pollinator in southern Arizona on a variety of crops and small farms. The carpenter bee visits flowers on melons, multiple varieties of squash, tomatoes, chiles and eggplant.

Farmers have often used the services of beekeepers to have honeybees pollinate their crops, but due to both the infestation of mites and the invasion of africanized bees many beekeepers have gotten out of the business. Many farmers who may have kept honey bees have also ceased this activity due to the increased risk of getting Africanized bee colonies. Thus, there is a gap in pollination services needed to produce good crops. Many bees native to the Southwest can potentially be used as crop pollinators.

We are developing techniques/protocols that consist of rearing, housing and managing the carpenter bee. Carpenter bees are large-bodied jet black bees that can be found throughout most of the United States.

Species in the southwestern United States typically nest in plants in natural habitat that often occurs near farmland.

In combination of creating habitat and managing bee houses, farmers can guarantee that their crops will get pollinated, resulting in bigger better vegetable and fruit production.

Project Objectives:
  • Develop protocols to be used by farmers for integrating native pollinators into farming systems.

    Translocate and establish viable populations of carpenter bees on farms using fence rows constructed out of sotol, agave and yucca stalks.

    Assess the feasibility of the carpenter bee as a crop pollinator.

    Disseminate information to farmers on the use of native pollinators in farming systems.

Introduction:

Pollination, an essential process ensuring the productivity of agricultural yields, is currently under threat by a myriad of causes, ranging from habitat fragmentation to the overuse of pesticides. Habitats for wild bees (the most diverse and important group responsible for crop pollination) can be improved on and around farms to increase pollination services and prevent potential losses in crop yields. The native southern Arizona carpenter bee, a potential crop pollinator, is being tested on two farms, representative of the small economically diversified agricultural operations found throughout the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. These farms are typically under 40 acres and grow a wide range of crops, ranging from melons, multiple varieties of squash, tomatoes, chiles and eggplant. Much of this produce is sold on a local scale at farmers markets or at roadside stands. Farmers have often used the services of beekeepers to have honeybees pollinate their crops, but due to both the infestation of mites and the invasion of africanized bees many beekeepers have gotten out of the business. Many farmers who may have kept honey bees have also ceased this activity due to the increased risk of getting Africanized bee colonies. Thus, there is a gap in pollination services needed to produce good crops. Many bees native to the Southwest can potentially be used as crop pollinators. We are developing techniques/protocols that consist of rearing, housing and managing the carpenter bee. Carpenter bees are large-bodied jet black bees that can be found throughout most of the United States. Species in the eastern United States are sometimes responsible for damage to wooden structures, typically old barns or the wooden eaves of old houses. Species in the southwestern United States typically nest in plants in natural habitat that often occurs near farmland. Based on our observations carpenter bees visit and pollinate a wide variety of crops grown on small farms in the southwestern United States. In combination of creating habitat and managing bee houses, farmers can guarantee that their crops will get pollinated, resulting in bigger better vegetable and fruit production. Many of the techniques we are developing can be replicated for carpenter bees found around the globe and on a more general level can be applied to other potential crop pollinators.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Stephen Buchmann
  • Suzanne Nelson

Research

Materials and methods:
  • Creating nesting habitat and translocation: Carpenter bee nesting areas were determined and the local population size was assessed within a twenty mile radius of the study sites. Translocated individuals acted as founder populations for farm sites. Nesting materials (stalks) were acquired from botanical gardens and plant nurseries. Fencerows were placed close to the crops but out of any heavy traffic area in order to reduce any bee/human interactions.

    Observation: Individually marked bees, applied with unique color combinations using paint pens, were followed by observers as they visited flowers during a foraging event. The species of flower visited, handling time per flower and total foraging time were recorded. Ambient air temperature, relative humidity and wind speed were recorded at the beginning of observation periods (Dramstad and Fry, 1995; Kearns and Inouye, 1993). Observation periods lasted for twenty minutes and were conducted on site visits every two weeks over the flowering period on the farms. An electronic data logger was attached to nests in the study sites. The event loggers electronically recorded when a bee exited and returned and the ambient air temperature while they are active. A data logger measured ambient air temperature while the bees were not flying.

    Education:

    Develop a bilingual brochure describing the use of native pollinators in farming systems.

    Deliver several lectures geared toward the general public discussing pollinator conservation and the importance of developing new types of pollinators.

Research results and discussion:
  • Demonstrated that carpenter bees are feasible pollinators for small farms and greenhouses.

    Developed an artificial nest structure.

    Developed a carpenter bee monitoring and data logging system.

    Developed several educational products geared toward the farmer.

    Conducted several translocation experiments with carpenter bees.

Research conclusions:

Overall, our research demonstrated that farmers can translocate carpenter bees to their farms and depend on the bees providing pollination to several types of crops.

We successfully developed an artificial nest structure that can be used for carpenter bee observation. The artificial nest structure is composed of a plywood outer strucuture that has a hinged plexglass cover. The outer shell protects an inserted balsa wood piece that serves as the nest substrate for the bees.

We developed an educational plastic laminated 8×14 sheet that can be taken into the field and has color photos of the most common native pollinators that can be found in farms and gardens in the Southwest. This is written in English and Spanish versions.

We wrote an easy-to-understand guide on collecting, raising and rearing carpenter bees for use in farm pollination. The guide includes information on how to enhance the habitat surrounding farms to benefit carpenter bees and other pollinators by planting beneficial host plants.

We successfully conducted several translocation experiments during this project. We translocated carpenter bees to the NSS farm and to the University of Arizona hydroponic greenhouse facility. In the greenhouse facility the carpenter bees are coexisting with managed bumblebees.

We successfully developed an electronic field monitoring device that monitors when a carpenter bee leaves the nest and when it reuturns. The logger records the time and temperature.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Dr. Stephen L Buchmann , Tohono Chul Park, Public Lecture. Talk on the use of native pollinators in gardening and small farms. Summer 2000, Tucson Arizona.

Dr. Stephen L Buchmann, Talk on the use of native pollinators in gardening and small farms. Western Regional Master Gardener Conference “Growing Through Knowledge” October 2000, Mesa, Arizona

Dr. Suzanne Nelson, Article in the Native Seeds/SEARCH newsletter Seedhead News, The article gave an overview of the project. Winter Solstice #71 2000

Dr. Stephen L Buchmann, Tucson Hydroponic Gardeners Association. Talk on the current use of bumblebees in greenhouse vegetable production and the potential use of carpenter bees for greenhouse vegetable production. January 2001, Tucson, AZ.

Jim Donovan, University of Arizona/Pima County Cooperative Extension Garden Center Agricultural Extension Summer Program. Talk to 4-8 graders on using native pollinators in gardening/farming including live demonstration of carpenter bees. July 17, 2001, Tucson Arizona

Dr. Stephen L Buchmann, University of Arizona/Pima County Cooperative Extension Garden Center Agricultural Extension Summer Program. Talk to 4-8 graders on using native pollinators in gardening/farming including live demonstration of carpenter bees. July 24, 2001, Tucson, Arizona

Dr. Stephen L Buchmann, Solitary Bees: Conservation, rearing and management for pollination, Workshop and publication in Fortaleza , Brazil April 2004. Dr. Buchmann discussed the use of carpenter bees in greenhouses.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Improving pollination management enables farmers to sustainably increase the quantity and quality of crop yields without having to resort to extra chemicals or fertilizers. For example, cotton harvests in the United States could increase by as much as 20% if pollination services were fully utilized by growers. Farm income could potentially increase by $400 million per year for growers. However, using honey bees to enhance cotton production has proved impossible where there has been continued intensive use of insecticides (Pimentel et. al., 1992).

Literature reviews document that more than thirty genera of animals, consisting of hundreds of species, are required to pollinate the 150 or so crops in the U.S. and 1,400 crops grown worldwide (Nabhan and Buchmann, 1997; Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen 1990). Domestic honey bees service only 15% of these crops, while wild bees and other insects pollinate the other 80%. Wild bees, the dominant animal group responsible for crop pollination, are extremely diverse with at least 4,000 species in the United States (Michener, 1979). Out of this diversity of pollinators, many native species could be utilized for crop pollination.

Our research has demonstrated that carpenter bees are feasible pollinators for use on traditional farms and in greenhouses.

According to 1997 agricultural census data, Arizona is the fourth leading state in greenhouse vegetable production. Developing alternative types of pollinators could lead to more consistent yields in greenhouses and also improve the overall efficiency of vegetable production in greenhouses.

Farmer Adoption

Certain aspects of this project will be immediate, particularly our demonstration that the populations of beneficial organisms around farms can be enhanced through simple practices of planting beneficial plants and adding pollinator habitats that can attract target species.

Specific recommendations to farmers to enhance carpenter bee populations around farms

• plant beneficial wildflowers surrounding farm fields
• plant beneficial habitat plants such as spanish sword, agave, and yucca; these can also act as living fences and provide nesting substrate for bees
• make a checklist of what pollinators are visiting crops (based on relating them relative to the size and color of a honey bee)
• examine old wooden structures around the farm. Do they see any carpenter bees?
• place dried plant material (such as Spanish sword stalks) around farm field to attract carpenter bees to fields

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

  • Develop a method to raise carpenter bees in a laboratory setting.

    Determine how to synchronize carpenter bee development with crop phenology.

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.