UNIVERSITY PARK – Fruits and nuts are high-value crops in the Mid-Atlantic states and are being heavily impacted by honeybee shortages for pollination. A new $1.4 million grant from the USDA NIFA Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) program to Penn State will look into future impacts on fruit pollination and the development of alternative pollinators to supplement honeybees.
According to David Biddinger, tree fruit entomologist and biocontrol specialist at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center and project co-director, the situation is becoming critical. “We already know the supply of honey bees in the U.S. will not be able to meet the demand for pollination services in the near future,” he explained. “We also know that the production costs for apiculturists will go up, and that the cost to fruit growers to rent honey bee hives for pollination has increased three-fold since 2006 and will continue to increase. Alternative pollinators such as native wild bees are greatly needed.”
The new project will establish surveys and a monitoring program to identify the importance of wild pollinators to agricultural pollination, assess bee species collected during survey work to determine if any pathogen or other invasive species has infected the population, develop new pollinators and enhance pollinator awareness through education efforts.
According to Biddinger, native bees play an important role in the pollination of fruits and vegetable crops in the Mid-Atlantic region and have probably been underestimated. “In a recent study, almost 50 species of native bees were shown to be key crop pollinators of several vegetable crops and were fully able to pollinate some of these crops without aid of honey bees on the majority of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey farms evaluated.” In addition, a two-year survey of 12 Pennsylvania apple orchards conducted by Biddinger found more than 120 species of bees. He found that while honey bee numbers had decreased by 10-fold since 1997, wild bee numbers had increased an average of three to five-fold.
“Native bee pollination hasn’t really been studied in the Mid-Atlantic, so we don’t know what bee species are here and what fauna we have to conserve. This will be one of the first steps in the project,” Biddinger said. Project investigators also plan on examining threats to native pollinators, such as viruses that have affected honey bee populations and pesticides.
The project also will examine the management of key species of wild bees for use in agriculture. “We have fresh market apple growers who have relied upon native pollinators for fruit pollination for over ten years without noticeable loss in yield or quality, but we need to verify this through measurement of yield, fruit set, fruit size and fruit quality in comparison to orchards using recommended rates of honey bees for pollination,” Biddinger explained. Native bee populations can vary widely from season to season, so these measurements need to be repeated over several seasons to determine reliability. Native bees, including bumble bees, greatly rely on adjacent woodlots and fencerows for nesting sites and supplemental food after apple bloom. Most native bees don’t fly nearly as far as honey bees, so determining the foraging ranges of key bee species will be important in providing reliable pollination of crops. Guidelines for pollinator-friendly land practices also will be developed, including land management practices that avoid harming bees, how to provide habitat for native bees on and around the farm, and guidelines for pesticide use to preserve wild bee populations.
According to project co-director Ed Rajotte, professor of entomology at Penn State and IPM coordinator, an ecological approach to managing pests in agricultural crops is known as integrated pest management (IPM). IPM involves compiling detailed and timely information about a crop and its pests to ensure that pest management decisions are economically, environmentally, and socially sound. In practice, it involves using several control tactics based on knowledge of the crop, weather conditions, pests and associated natural enemies to avoid crop losses and to minimize harmful effects on the environment and non-target organisms such as bees. Applying the principles of IPM to conserve native bees for sustainable pollination is something new for most regions of the US.
Another goal of the project is to increase the awareness of wild bee pollinators by the public and the agricultural community. “What we learn from pollinator restoration demonstrations, the information assembled from past research on native bee habitat and crop pollination, and our years of experience working on pollinator conservation in agricultural landscapes will be presented to farmers/land mangers in a practical way they can use to conserve pollinators on their lands,” Biddinger explained. “We will conduct workshops, farm walks, and seminars to farmers and staff from farm-related agencies and develop audience-specific educational materials.”
Other collaborators on the project include researchers from Penn State, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Xerces Society, Long Island University, the US Department of Agriculture NRCS and the US Department of the Interior (USGS). For more information on bees and other pollinators, visit Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research at http://ento.psu.edu/pollinators.
The Pennsylvania IPM program is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania State University and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture aimed at promoting integrated pest management in both agricultural and urban settings. For more information, contact the program at 814-865-2839, or visit http://www.paipm.org/ online.
Kristie Auman-Bauer, Penn State University