Why conserve pollinators? Many fruit and vegetable crops grown are dependent on insect pollinators, especially the highly efficient bee pollinators, to set seed and/or fruit. Crops that are highly dependent on pollinators for economical yields include apple, cherry, pear, cranberry, blueberry, blackberry, greenhouse tomatoes, pumpkin, melon, and squash, among others.
Without complete pollination, many of these plants produce small or deformed fruits. While honeybees are often brought in to supplement pollination in these crops, many farms have a diverse and abundant wild pollinator community that can help achieve full pollination. There are many easily adopted practices to support these pollinators on the farm.
1) Ensure access to flowering resources throughout the season. Bees and other wild pollinators require sources of nectar and pollen to maintain their energy while moving among flowers and to feed their developing offspring. With intensive weed management in agricultural landscapes, these resources can be limited during the growing season.
When possible, limit mowing to allow flowering species to reach maturity in field margins and other spaces on farm.
Plant bee-friendly wildflowers in strips or meadows around the farm. These types of plantings have been shown to increase yields of nearby pollinator-dependent crops such as blueberry.
2) Provide additional nesting materials for above ground bees. While most bees nest in soil and have nesting requirements that are either unknown or difficult to supplement, some bees nest in twigs and other hollow cavities or tunnels above ground, such as beetle tracks in standing dead wood. These nesting resources are often limited in managed landscapes, and it’s easy to supplement these nesting materials and build up populations of these types of bees on farm.
Leave old trees or logs in place in woods next to crop fields (as opposed to removing them).
Provide additional nesting materials, such as wood blocks with narrow, deep holes drilled into them or bamboo, paper, or cardboard tubes designed for mason and leafcutter bees. Examples of these types of materials can be found in this Xerces Society handout.
3) Reduce exposure to bee-toxic pesticides. Bees and other pollinators will actively forage on many crops during their bloom periods. It is important to follow label directions intended to protect pollinators during this critical period. Later in the season, it is important to minimize risk to bees on farm if more toxic products — such as pyrethrins, rotenone, or spinosad — are required for pest management.
Do not apply bee-toxic pesticides if bees are actively visiting crop flowers.
If applications are needed during bloom, the best time to apply is in the late evening when bees are no longer foraging.
Take the necessary steps to reduce spray drift, particularly onto open flowers in adjacent fields or field margins.
After bloom, keep bees out of the crop field by mowing down open flowers in row middles.
Use caution when applying bee-toxic chemistries. See this table of toxicity for common organic-approved pesticides.
Integrated Crop Pollination
Different strategies to support pollination of fruit and vegetable crops are currently being monitored on over 100 farms nationwide as part of the Integrated Crop Pollination (ICP) Project, a multi-year research partnership involving 15 organizations, including research institutions, federal agencies, and other interdisciplinary stakeholders. ICP is a concept that combines the use of managed pollinators (such as honey bees, bumble bees, and mason bees) with the restoration of habitat for wild pollinators and the adoption of bee-friendly farm practices to ensure the reliable and economical pollination of crops. For more information, check out the website at ProjectICP.org.