- Additional Plants: ornamentals
- Animals: bees
- Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research
- Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, hedgerows
- Production Systems: agroecosystems
The recent national and international economic crisis emphasizes more than ever the need to start making changes in our pollination management for creating a healthy agricultural industry. The current pollination management that relies on renting migratory honeybees for pollination is neither sustainable nor environmentally minded. The honeybee is not native to North America, has a flight range that covers more than 32,000 acres , and is the Hummer of the bee world in the way it consumes fuel (nectar). Moreover, the keeper can box her up and ship her, sometimes accidently along with pests and diseases, wherever the monocrop cultures need pollination. Additionally, the following facts support the need for a pollination strategy change.
- Honeybee colonies are rapidly decreasing--more than 26% in the past 15 years , which means that in the future we will have to rely on more honeybee imports;
- After two years of intense research, Colony Collapse Disorder is still unresolved and proves to be a chronic problem;
- Because of the honeybee shortage, honeybee hive rentals are reaching record high fees for some early crops;
- As they are shifted around the country and in between continents, honeybees are exposed to a wide range of diseases, pests and pesticides ;
- Contaminated honeybees vector diseases to native bees, and non-migratory and feral honeybee populations, thus threatening the local honey production and, ultimately, the environment;
- Wide flight ranges plus being extensively moved around can make honeybees a significant vector of plant pathogens, such as Fire Blight , Mummy Berry Disease or Botrytis Gray Mold;
- Migratory beekeepers’ vehicles and equipment can spread soil born diseases, pests and weeds;
- It has been shown that honeybees prefer some exotic weeds and can increase their seed production;
- For some native plants, honeybees act as floral parasites – harvesting the rewards without causing pollination;
- Without regard to the availability of native bees for pollination on each field, agricultural fields are flooded with between three times to two thousand times more honeybees per acre than are found in their natural habitat;
- Over-pollination can be just as detrimental as too little pollination and, by collecting nectar for days after ensuring pollination, honeybees can weaken the plant and crop that is being set.
- After commercial pollination, beekeepers move tens of thousands of honeybee colonies in wild fields for recovery and honey making, which very likely negatively influences the ecosystem balance;
- Honeybees are suspected to be outcompeting native bees through resource competition;
- Nonetheless, the migratory beekeeping industry artificially sustains environmental-harmful monocrop cultures at the expense of a more sustainable, diverse and local agriculture.
Native bees can provide superior pollination services over honeybees since they have a diverse range of behaviors that allows them to forage in colder and wetter conditions for nectar and pollen and to be specialized in certain crops, hence ensuring cross-pollination. For example, only 250 female orchard bees are required to pollinate an acre of apples, a task that would need 1.5 to 2 honeybee hives - approximately 15,000 to 20,000 honeybees. Unlike honeybees, some native bees can perform buzz pollination, which is beneficial for cross-pollination, setting larger and more abundant fruit in tomatoes, peppers, cranberries, blueberries, etc. Moreover, the native bee population is very diverse, about 4,000 species in North America, and if one bee species declines because of parasites or diseases, other bee species can fill the gap. Native bees cannot be managed and shifted around, and have much shorter flight ranges in comparison with honeybees--meaning less exposure to a wide range of pests and diseases, and thus making them reliable pollinators.
Long-term agricultural goals should include the conservation and restoration of the native bee habitat. This way the farmer will have, besides free pollination services, a healthy and diverse population of pest predators, reduced farm soil erosion, irrigation water loss and fertilizer runoff, as well as more windbreaks, weed suppression, etc. Encouraging native bees on farms by protecting and enhancing their habitat will result in free, sustainable pollination with superior yields. Studies in Canada have shown that in the absence of honeybees, canola growers can increase their income if 30% of their farmland is left as natural habitat.
Project objectives from proposal:
In this project, we will determine the costs and returns per square foot for native bee habitat rehabilitation on farms situated in northeastern United States. For this, we will install native bee linear habitat along the field edges or through the middle of large crop fields. Along with establishing populations of flowering trees, shrubs and herbaceous native plants, we will also create and enhance the nesting habitat for ground and wood-nesting bees. This work will dovetail into another project supported by a Northeast SARE partnership grant that is examining man-made bumblebee and solitary bee nest adoption. Such work will encourage growers to more confidently adopt these conservation practices in order to secure and increase their native bee population. This will translate in to a sustainable pollination and more qualitative and quantitative yields, which will allow the farmers to increase their profits.
A large number of organizations, such as USDA affiliations, universities, and non-profit organizations, throughout North America are working on conserving and encouraging pollinators, with emphasis on honeybees. Valuable research is being done on bee life cycle and biology, habitat restoration, pollinator plants, plant pollinator interactions, bee diversity, bee pests and diseases, synergistic and sublethal pesticide effects on bees etc. However, despite the significance of the subject matter and the information available, in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic U.S. there are no programs investigating what will be the costs and returns of rehabilitating the native bee habitat on organic farms. Moreover, the farmers in this region need to have demonstration farms that will be how-to guides for providing forage and nesting resources for the native bee population. Our literature research on this matter is based on numerous pollination publications and web research. In addition, we are members of Xerces Society , which allows us to be in touch with many others researchers and educators around the country, and keep abreast with news on this matter.
In addition, through the bumblebee nest project funded by Northeast SARE in 2008, we have had the chance to give presentations on pollination for both organic and conventional farmers. Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture has organized some of these presentations and the positive feedback and interest voiced by the participants have encouraged us to develop this project. In our view, considering the major ongoing honeybee crises and the need for the organic farmer to have free and truly organic pollination, a study on what are the investments needed to restore the native bee habitat should be a priority. These types of projects can incorporate all the available data and give a full perspective to the farmer on what is the work volume and investment level for accomplishing pollination sustainability.
Through this project, we will provide the growers in northeastern U.S. with the applied knowledge of how to rehabilitate the native pollinator habitat. The desired outcome of this research project is to assess the investment needed for having a strong and diverse population of native bees able to fully pollinate the predominant crops. Depending on the farm, fully native bee pollination will not be achievable in the first year, but we feel that in about 3 years the maximum potential can be reached in most farms. For better understanding our project environmental impact, the bee population progress will be monitored weekly. For that, we will use aerial netting and pan trapping methods. Furthermore, the native bee census will be incorporated in a regional bee database, which will shed more light on the current national native pollinator crises.
To ascertain the costs per square foot of bee habitat rehabilitation, we will be factoring the time and funds invested in the initial site survey, planting design and installation, and yearly maintenance. The returns will be determined by the rate of which the native bees are participating in the crop pollination process before and after the habitat has reached its full potential. For this we will trap and identify all the bees, native or not, present on a randomly selected given number of crop flowers, in a given time period. Without taking in consideration the value of the environmental services, we will consider that the pollinator value is directly proportional with the value of the crop pollinated. Therefore, the returns’ estimated minimum value will be equal with the crop yields value for which the native bees actively pollinated.