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

Project Overview

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


  • Animals: bees


  • Crop Production: pollination
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research, outreach

    Proposal abstract:

    Native bees provide pollination services to crops The production of marketable fruits and vegetables of many varieties 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 unrecognized set of unmanaged native bee species. Pollination provided by unmanaged (wild) bees is a resource whose value could be capitalized on; however, because the contributions of wild bee species are often not recognized by growers, little is done to help bolster their populations and the pollination service they provide. 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. The need to quantify the contributions of wild pollinator species and to provide management information to farmers is particularly relevant for two reasons. First, in the Northeast, wild species may be providing the majority of pollination in some areas. For example, our studies of watermelon pollination in Pennsylvania and New Jersey found that wild bees alone fully pollinated watermelon at 21 of the 23 farms we studied It is also well known that or crops such as pumpkin and blueberries, honey bees are also less effective pollinators than some wild bees 2, 3. Second, 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. The number of commercially available honey bee hives has declined in recent years 1, due in part to severe problems with parasites and disease. The decline in managed honeybee colonies has already led to pollination shortfalls for several important crops 5. Wild bee species can help compensate for honey bee declines and in some instances are sufficient to provide complete pollination of crops. Despite research progress on crop pollination by wild bees, and on the factors affecting wild bee populations 4, 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 are the main pollinators in native habitats. Finally, it is important to note that the Agricultural Management Assistance Program of the Farm Bill provides for compensation for certain farm activities that could be used by farmers to promote wild and managed pollinators and the services they provide.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    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 will increase the sustainability of regional fruit and vegetable production. Our proposal focuses on farmer outreach and education because we have already completed three years’ of collaborative research on pollination with 29 vegetable farmers in Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. During this research we collected several extensive data sets to quantify the contributions wild pollinators make to crop pollination, and the habitat needs of the various pollinator species. Our empirical results and statistical modeling, based on over 7,300 pollinator visits by 54 species of wild bees, found that wild bees are doing more than 50% of the crop pollination. In addition, we have surveyed the use of different native and exotic plant species by pollinators in various habitat types within the region during three seasons. Our data from grassland / old fields, woodlands, pinelands (in blueberry and cranberry farming region), and farm sites can be used to compile lists of pollinator-supporting plants for use in buffer plantings and set aside areas within and surrounding farms.

    The critical next step is to translate our results and complementary data from other sources into habitat management guidelines for supporting wild pollinators and then bring this information to a larger audience of framers and land managers. We will develop easily accessible materials for farmers on 1) the pollination services provided by wild pollinators, and 2) different practical management options to support wild pollinator populations (for example, planting flower resources in set-aside areas and pollinator-friendly tillage regimes). We will also incorporate information compiled from other research projects including basic biological information on important pollinators.

    Outreach materials will include web-based and printed pamphlets with pollinator species lists and management guidelines. All material will be developed in collaboration with a group of farmers with whom we have worked in the past, the Natural Resources Conservation Service for New Jersey, and state extension agents for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The close partnership with farmers will help us to develop materials that can reach a wide audience, and contain recommendations that farmers believe can be readily implemented. During the process we will also work with our farmer partners and state extension agents to establish networks to reach a wider set of individuals. Ultimately the decision to implement new management strategies is up to each farm; however by providing relevant and accessible information directly to farmers and to extension specialists who work with farmers over the long term, we hope to raise farmers’ awareness of the importance of wild pollinators to long term sustainability on their farms and influence the approaches used by some farmers in ways that can promote pollinators and pollination.

    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.