Research Project Puts Priority On Pollination

It was just about a decade ago that beekeepers around the country began noticing their honeybees were dropping like, well, flies. Even stranger, greater numbers seemed to be just disappearing into thin air.

Such dips in honeybee populations were not new to apiculturists, and in fact one of the names given to the recurring problem was “disappearing disease.” But not in numbers like this, with beekeepers reporting average losses of about 33%. So in 2006 a new name was coined, Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.

Research assistant Shaana Way of Michigan State University sampling bees in a wildflower planting adjacent to a highbush blueberry field. (Photo Credit: Julia Brokaw)

It took time, but finally in 2012, with money from the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Integrated Crop Pollination (ICP) project was formed. It is truly a nationwide project, a coordinated effort of 15 organizations with 60 scientists and Extension specialists working in such fruit and nut crops as apple, almond, blueberry, cherry, and raspberry.

The first field season was in 2013 with teams gathering data on bees and other insects, visiting flowers at more than 100 farms across the nation, says Rufus Isaacs, a professor of entomology at Michigan State University and director of the ICP project. At each farm, bee collections were combined with sampling for the level of pollination and the crop yield at increasing distances into the crop plantings.

The project got off to something of a rocky start. The shutdown of the government in fall of 2013 meant funding would be cut off.

“But stakeholders like the Almond Board stepped in and helped us maintain funding,” says Isaacs. “We’ve got a great team and they are great to work with.”

Almonds Dependent On Bees
The Almond Board of California has a keen interest in the project, as the trees are the first in the crop year requiring pollination — right around Valentine’s Day. And the crop is so successful that it won’t be long before, water permitting, there will soon be 1 million acres in the state. That’s a lot of pollinating, so each winter about two-thirds of the nation’s captive honey bees are trucked to California.

But it’s not just almonds that require pollination, and it’s not just honeybees that can do the pollinating.

“We’re interested in looking at other ways of getting crops pollinated. Though the project was funded originally when CCD was at its height, diversification (of pollinators) is good. We’re trying not to put all our pollination eggs in one basket, as it were,” says Isaacs. “And we’re able to do projects across the county. In some cases the best strategy might be a combination of honeybees and these other bees. Or, looking down the road, what if we lose honeybees or they become too expensive? We’re trying to be proactive for fruits and nuts in the future.”

Isaacs and his colleagues envision the ICP project functioning along the lines of an IPM project.

“The idea is that you’ve got multiple options available just as you would with managing pests, so you can make a good decision,” he says. “In almonds, for instance, we’re gathering evidence that blue orchard bees can enhance pollination when combined with honeybees, but we are also trying to improve the economics.”

A National Project
Beyond the 20 sites being observed in commercial almond orchards in California, scientists are working in some of the top fruit-growing areas to study pollination.

In apples, 13 orchards in Michigan and Pennsylvania were sampled for pollinators and yield across a range of landscape types. Likewise, in cherries, both sweet and tart in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, 13 orchards are being studied.

In raspberries, 10 fields in Oregon have been sampled. In blueberry, 58 fields are being sampled in Florida, Michigan, Oregon, and British Columbia.

“We take samples and look at pollinator abundance to make decisions. We’re trying to make good rules of thumb so growers can take quick samples during bloom to see if they have enough bees,” he says. “For example, in blueberry fields we know if there are large numbers (of pollinators) you get large, juicy, profitable berries. We’re trying to establish a threshold for good pollination.”

In other words, Isaacs says they’re trying to give growers the most bang for their buck.

“We’re identifying the most economically valuable pollinators and the factors affecting their abundance,” he says. “Then we’re doing analysis of the abundance of those bees compared with crop yields.”

More Than The Orchard
In addition to simply counting the numbers and types of pollinators, researchers are looking at what is surrounding the fields and orchards. (See sidebars, “Keeping Forests, Flower Fields” and “Establishing Wildflower Habitat To Support Highbush Blueberries.”)

“The proximity of wild habitat helps the proximity of wild bees to pollinate crops, and that’s true for crop systems across the U.S.,” he says. “A number of studies indicate improvement in fruit crops but we need to know when and where this approach gives a return on investment.”

There are two years remaining on the five-year project. Growers across the country will be invited to field days in 2016 and 2017 where they can see the work being done and question the researchers.

Isaacs expects the field days to be extremely popular based on the surveys of growers run by USDA-National Agricultural Statistical Service last year.

“Growers are really, really interested in making sure their crops are well-pollinated,” he says.