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  Partners in Production: How to work with pollinators to improve your harvest 

If you've seen abundant honey bees on your farm lately, count yourself among the lucky. Beleaguered by mites, disease, pesticides, bad weather, and the invasion of Africanized honey bees, the crop-loving European honey bee has been the subject of dire predictions of doom and loud proclamations in its defense. USDA numbers indicate that we've lost over half the wild and domestic colonies that we had on farms and ranches in 1950, and half of that loss has occurred since 1990. Whether or not the honey bee is indeed on a collision course with destiny, the discussion has brought an often overlooked aspect of food production into focus - pollination. 

"A modern farmer can't assume that pollination of his fruit and vegetables will just happen," say South Carolina beekeepers, Dave and Janice Green. "The pollination scene is a rapidly changing story, and pollination has to be managed, just like fertility, or pest and disease control." 

Pollination is crucial for the production of viable seeds and for fully developed, tasty fruit. From the experience of many of us who grew up on farms, this critical process just happens naturally, without any high-tech intervention. For grains and some nut crops, the wind ensures seed set; but for most fruits and vegetables, insects come into play. Largescale fruit and nut growers like California's almond producers, who think a lot about pollination, usually depend on beekeepers to provide adequate numbers of domestic honey bees when the crops are in bloom. However, honey bee populations have recently declined, and commercial pollination fees have increased in parts of the country. If you grow on a smaller scale, you may find renting or keeping bees expensive. Some growers report only recently noticing spottiness in their orchards and misshapen fruit, indicating pollination problems. 

"All of our local wild bees are gone," reports H.K. Johnson a beekeeper in Harnett County, North Carolina. "Our watermelons produce only three to five fruits in a whole field - the future looks grim." 

The decline of honey bees, however, does not mean crop failure. "We have not had problems with pollination on our small farm because we raise several kinds of bees and encourage pollen and nectar-producing plants throughout the year," says Raymond Williams of Beetberry Farm, New York. "There is, however, a critical shortage of pollination in the Northeast, as almost all, if not all, of the feral honey bee colonies have now been destroyed by mites. Many produce farmers in the Northeast are noticing decreases in production." 

Whether you rent hives now or have never given two cents for a pollinator, determining what kinds of bees pollinate your crops and what you can do to work with them, will go a long way towards improving the size, quality, and dependability of your harvests. Even if you aren't experiencing yield declines, better pollination can provide you with better looking and tastier harvests. The time is ripe. 

What is pollinating your crops? 
One reason many growers are not experiencing declines in yields, even as the wild honey bee is disappearing, is the presence of many other wild bees who are not vulnerable to the same diseases and pests. The Forgotten Pollinators Campaign sponsored field research this summer on pumpkin and squash fields in Maine, Alabama, and Arizona to find out how pollinating was being done. In all three states, the researchers found that in fields that may have once been primarily pollinated by feral (gone wild) honey bees, the lion's share of the pollination job is being done by native bumble bees, squash and gourd bees and their wild kin. 

Are your crops under-pollinated?
"Symptoms of inadequate pollination (as opposed to nutrient deficiencies or disease) are often unrecognized," says Dave Green. "The poor quality is often blamed on weather or other factors. It surprises me how many growers don't know the simple and basic tool of counting seeds for apple pollination evaluation, for example" he says. "We may perpetuate false ideas by referring to apples as being "set," when we really should talk about seeds being set. It requires multiple visits by a bee to each blossom to make the apples that make the money." 

To find out how well an apple was pollinated, simply slice the fruit crosswise and check for two seeds in each of the five seed pockets. Count only fully developed, not withered, seeds. The bagged supermarket apples usually have only two or three seeds, while large gourmet apples may have six or eight. Green suggests that growers keep yearly records on how well varieties are pollinated along with any information like how many honey bee colonies were rented, where they were placed, or what other native bees may have done some or all of the pollinating in your fields. 

What you can do to create a pollinator-friendly environment:
Lack of suitable pollen and nectar plants present a fundamental problem to the wild bees you may rely on for pollination. All too efficient herbicides, and the removal of fence-rows, wild strips, and fallow lands all reduce forage and nesting sites for wild bees. Sweet clover is eliminated from fields by herbicides, for example, but is also replaced by herbicide-tolerant plants like Dalmatian toadflax, yarrow, and deadly nightshade, that offer almost nothing for bees. 

If you have any arable land or wood lot acreage you can sow to green manures or cover crops, you can encourage native plants that offer food and shelter to wild bees. Clovers, alfalfa and other legumes, sunflowers, thistles honeysuckles, sweet milkweeds, sages, salvias, beebalm and other mints (bees love mints) are just a few of the many plants that provide wild bees with nectar and pollen. 

  • On his 18-acre fruit and vegetable farm in New York, Raymond Williams grows mixed nectar plants for bee pasture to support wild bees and the bees he raises, which include honey bees, orchard bees, hornfaced bees, blueberry bees, and alfalfa leafcutter bees. "We grow about six acres of nectar plants including red alsike, dutch white, and sweet clovers, birdsfoot trefoil and alfalfa. Also annually, we plant buckwheat for bloom at varying times. In the fall, golden rod and New England asters are everywhere." 
  • Goldenrod provides especially important food for bees, since it is one of the last heavy-yielding plants of the season and the pollen is high quality for bees. Unfortunately, goldenrod is often falsely blamed for allergies caused by ragweed and so is often kept mowed. 
  • Many of the practices that will encourage wild pollinators in your fields, will also encourage other beneficial insects. Richard de Wilde in western Wisconsin shelters beneficials in his vegetable fields with 8 foot wide hedgerows. He plants an understory of grass mixes like creeping fescue and ryegrass with a row of shrubs and a row of flowers. Grasses can supply pollinators with shelter and resting places. Depending on shrub selection the hedgerows cost 38 to 88 cents a foot. He looks for flowers and shrubs that bloom throughout the year in order to provide a continuous source of nectar and pollen. He also plants ones that have a good shelf life because he markets them with the vegetables. He plants black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, daisies, dogwoods, and curly willow. 
How to spray if you have to -- or how to talk to neighbors who spray
Not everyone farms organically. But as many beekeepers are well aware, the risks of pesticides extend far beyond the boundary of a field. Growers, homeowners, and even state-run insect and weed control programs may not be fully aware of the implications of their spraying practices. Here are a few guidelines for minimizing the negative effects of pesticides on pollinators. 
  • Don't spray when pollinators are at work. Whether you use honey bees or rely on wild bees it is essential that you monitor for foraging bees as pesticide labels require. "I am firmly convinced that pesticide misuse is a bigger problem than Varroa mites," says beekeeper Dave Green. "It certainly has cost me a lot more dead and weak hives." David Pimental of Cornell University has done research indicating that one in every five honey bee colonies that has died in recent years was made critically vulnerable by exposure to pesticides - an exposure that growers can avert at very little cost. 
  • Also, many states refuse to recognize that pesticide label directions do refer to wild bees as well as managed ones. Conformity with the label directions is required by law and is the responsibility of the pesticide applicator, but many applicators will assume that wild bees are simply not present, ignoring, for example, a weed bloom such as wild mustard in grain fields or clover in orchards, that will draw bees into the application area and lead to bee kills. Flowers outside the spray area, where drift may reach the flowers (clover blooming next to sweet corn, for example) also poses risks to pollinating insects. 

    In New York and Michigan, poison applications on blooming (tasseled) sweet corn can cause damage, because bees visit the tassels. The poisoning becomes much more severe when goldenrod is blooming in the fields or hedgerows, and aerial applicators contaminate this pollen, which is MUCH more attractive to bees than the corn. 

  • Choose pesticides with pollinators in mind. With the newer, non-residual pesticides that are often used today, bees are protected if the grower just doesn't apply during foraging time. Once the pesticide is dry, there is little further threat to bees. Residual pesticides such as Penncap M, Sevin, or any of the organophosphates should never be used during bloom. Not only is there a direct effect on bees visiting blooms, but residues are quite toxic and will be gathered in pollen and nectar and taken back to the hive to cause death in young bees and brood. Also, while the egg-laying honey bee queen stays in the hive and so is less exposed to the threats of a chemical kill, female leafcutting, orchard, and alkali bees all forage for pollen, and are thus exposed to pesticide residues. In 1980, U.S. economic losses due to pesticide poisonings of honey bees and reduced pollination was estimated at $135 million. 
  • Even target-specific pest control agents can affect a wide range of insect life. Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacterial pesticide, has been touted as an environmentally rational approach.. But studies have shown that when Bt was sprayed to control gypsy moths in Oregon, numbers of non-target types of butterflies and caterpillars declined. Some of these insects serve as biological control agents themselves, or as important food resource for other wildlife. 
  • Cooler weather means a dramatic increase in the residual killing action of insecticides. Furadan has a residue hazard of one week in warm 70 degree weather, to greater than two weeks in 50 degree weather. Spur (fluvalinate), an insecticide considered non-hazardous to bees, gave a 30% increase in honey bee kills at cooler temperatures. Unusually cold nights following hot summer days causes lots of dew to form on leaves, which presents a bee poisoning problem as more of the chemical residue remains. 
  • Climate affects the hazard of a given pesticide. Malathion, for example, has a fumigant effect on bees in warm California, but not in cooler Washington. Phosdrin (mevinphos) has a short residue time in California, but will cause large bee kills a day later in Washington. In arid eastern Washington, Lannate (methomyl) is safe for bees if applied late in the evening, but in the east, less arid areas of the west, and in the Midwest, it is hazardous for a much longer period of time. 
  • Use a lower-hazard formulation of pesticides when you must apply them. Dust formulations are usually more hazardous to bees than sprays and granules. Wettable powders often have a longer residual effect than emulsifiable concentrates. Microencapsulated insecticides, which extend the life of the chemical through slow-release through the plastic walls of a capsule, are extremely hazardous to bees since the capsules are about the same size as pollen and adhere readily to bees. 
  • Use lower-hazard application methods. Systemic insecticides injected into the soil are safer than spraying them on plants. Fine sprays are safer than coarse ones. And ground application is much safer than aerial application, because the chemical drifts less, and smaller areas are treated at one time. 
If You Rent Pollination Services:
Despite the struggles honey beekeepers have faced recently, they remain capable of moving large populations of pollinators into fields or orchards at bloom time - critical for largescale agriculture. California is probably the best example of a state where large-scale growers rely on rented colonies of honey bees to insure adequate pollination. California growers need to augment local bee populations for their crops of almonds, plums, prunes, cherries, apples and other tree fruit crops, melons, and alfalfa. The annual value of these crops is several billion dollars, and to ensure adequate pollination California farmers rent about 1.4 million hives a year, about half for almonds alone. This accounts for half of all bee rentals in the entire country! California growers maintain such large and intensive operations that they must rely on contracts with migrating beekeepers from out-of-state. 

Moving bees from state to state exposes them to mites, diseases, hybridization with Africanized bees, and risk of pesticide exposure - all of which are taking a heavy toll. According to USDA statistics, domestic honey bee colonies declined from 2.5 million in 1995 to 1.9 million in 1996 -- 20% in just one year. And this is following a decline of 25% between 1990 and 1995. California almond farmers have been feeling the results of these problems, too. In 1995, beekeepers were paid over $40 for each hive used for pollination rentals on almonds, a doubling of rental fees in ten years. Almonds require 30 to 60 percent fruit set for a successful crop, a task which requires two honey bee colonies per acre. 

  • What to look for when renting a honey bee hive. According to Dave Green, a grower should check the hives he is renting for pollination services. With the keeper's cooperation, a grower can often borrow an extra bee veil and do a simple check to see how many frames the bees cover in a hive. This will indicate how well the bees can provide pollination services. Ideally, says Green, the bees should cover seven to eight deep brood frames, which represents about five to six frames of brood. A hive with only five frames covered with bees is not quite up to par, unless most of the bees are out foraging. A hive with ten frames covered, on the other hand, may be too strong. Bees that have no space to develop will be apt to swarm. Swarmy bees have their minds on moving to a new home and are poor workers. 
Help us provide growers like you with pertinent information on pollinators. Please take a moment to answer the questions below. Add as much information as you like and mail it in the stamped envelope to the Forgotten Pollinators Campaign at The Bee Works 1870 West Prince Rd Suite 16 Tucson, AZ 85705. Thanks! 

Pollination Survey


Do you keep bees? If so what kinds (honey bees, Mason bees, Alfalfa leafcutter bees)? 

Do you rent bees? How many and how often? 

How large is your orchard/farm and what crops do you grow? 

Have you experienced problems with pollination on your farm - such as areas of lower fruit set in your orchards, or misshapen fruits? 

Have you noticed any changes in the abundance of bee pollinators on your farm in the last 2 - 3 years? 

Are you certified organic? Do you, or your neighbors regularly use insecticides or microbial pest controls like Bt? 

Do you, or have you, planted forages to attract/augment pollinators, or set land aside for pollinators? 

What kind of information on pollination would be useful to you? 

How do you get your information? 

____extension agents/service
____magazines/journals (please list titles)
____the internet
____other (please describe) 

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