EAST LANSING, Mich.—An international study revealing the importance of wild pollinators for production of fruits and vegetables is providing new insights that may help improve Michigan’s pollination-dependent crops. Those crops, including blueberries, raspberries, apples, cherries and pickling cucumbers, have a farm-gate value of more than $400 million* each year and add significantly to the state’s economy.
The research team, including MSU AgBioResearchentomologist Rufus Isaacs, found that fruit set – the proportion of flowers turning into nuts or fruits – was considerably lower in sites with few wild insects visiting the crop flowers. Therefore, losses of wild insects from landscapes will likely have negative effects on both natural biodiversity and agricultural harvests. The study involved 50 researchers with data from farms in 20 countries and 41 crop systems around the world. The results of the study, by Lucas Garibaldi and his co-authors, appeared in Science Express on Feb. 28, 2013.
“The results highlight that we should be exploring a diversity of approaches to support pollination in these crops, such as building wild bee populations on farms and bringing in alternative managed bees that can complement honeybees to help ensure that crops reach their yield potential,” explained Isaacs, a professor in the MSU Department of Entomology. He pointed out that many wild bee species visit Michigan’s orchards and fields, but the majority of the pollination work is done by honeybees brought by beekeepers and rented to growers in the spring and summer to pollinate crops.
“This study suggests a strong benefit for conserving wild bees because their abundance was strongly correlated with fruit set in the many studies represented in this analysis,” Isaacs said. “Their abundance is often low on farms, however, and we are interested in finding ways to enhance wild bees through simple practices that growers can adapt to their farm situations.”
Isaacs is heading a new, nationwide integrated crop pollination project, funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Specialty Crops Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will make use of the results from the international study. In Michigan, Isaacs is working with Larry Gut, MSU professor of entomology and AgBioResearch scientist, and Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center and a district Extension horticulture educator, to test integrated approaches at blueberry, apple and cherry farms.
“The approach of the integrated crop pollination project is analogous to that of integrated pest management, in that we aim to provide decision support tools to reduce risk and improve returns for growers through the use of multiple tactics tailored to specific crops and situations,” Isaacs explained.
The team will investigate bees visiting fruit orchards and fields on Michigan farms and will compare fields that are managed using honeybees alone, adding bumble bees or blue orchard bees, or adding specialized habitat for wild bees. He hopes that the new project will improve sustainability of U.S. specialty crops and thereby help ensure the continued ability of growers to reap profitable returns from their land.