BY NIKKI ROTHWELL, Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Michigan State University $1.6 million to lead a national crop pollination research and extension project.
The five-year project will focus on supporting specialty crop yields and profit by supporting wild and managed bees. It is part of the USDA's $101 million initiative to support the nation's specialty crop producers.
There are many variables when it comes to growing specialty crops in Michigan and around the country, and the weather isn't the only one. Specialty fruit, tree and nut growers also need the help of some small workers — pollinators, or bees.
Rufus Isaacs, MSU entomology professor, and his team will look at specialty crop pollination and develop region- and crop-specific Integrated Crop Pollination management approaches to diversify pollination sources and maintain consistent crop yields. These may include honey bees, wild bees and alternative managed bees such as bumble bees.
They also will examine adding habitat for bees to provide them with food when crops are not in bloom. Inclusion of economics and social science components will help make the results more relevant to real-world farming situations. The project team also includes commercial pollination suppliers and an advisory committee of stakeholders to provide critical feedback.
"We are excited to receive this funding and to start this project that we expect to benefit the production of these crops that support the health of our nation," Isaacs said. "Increasingly, people are consuming more fruits, vegetables and nuts, and these all depend on pollination. As demand increases, it will be essential that growers have the tools needed to ensure they can continue to supply this demand."
The team's findings will support long-term sustainability of U.S. specialty crops by increasing growers' ability to better manage pollinators for improved crop yield. By working in many different crop landscapes, they plan to develop widely-applicable information for growers, so growers can maximize crop yields, Isaacs said.
The extension component of the project will develop recommendations on how to manipulate farm landscapes to support native bee and honey bee populations, by drawing on the team's research in specialty crop farms across the nation including almonds in California, cherries in Michigan, pumpkins in Pennsylvania and blueberries in Florida.
Nikki Rothwell is Michigan State University Extension district horticulturalist and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.