Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 21, 2013

Ag Forum: Using bees to boost specialty crop yields

BY NIKKI ROTHWELL Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — We spent a lot of time in blooming Michigan tart cherry orchards this last spring looking up at bees.

The Northwest Station research team is part of a Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) project that focuses on improving specialty crop yields and profit by supporting wild and managed bees. The project goal is to 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. We will also examine the addition of bee habitats to provide pollinators 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.

Those are pretty big goals for one project, but the nuts and bolts are a little more down to earth: hop in the big white truck with the summer research crew, drive to one of our five research sites in Michigan, meet Dr. Larry Gut’s research technicians, and start counting the number of bees at five distances from the edge of the orchard. Bring a long bug net with you and catch a sub-sample of what you see flying around the blossoms — place captures into a vial without getting stung. To be sure you are accurately quantifying the benefits of pollinators in an orchard, construct very large and awkward cages out of scratchy chicken wire; attach cages to branches of a Montmorency tree where blossoms won’t rub or branches won’t sway to prevent the self fertile flowers from pollinating each other inside the cage. Count all the blossoms on a number of branches. Reconvene at those same orchards at harvest time and count the fruit on the marked branches. Take a second sample with a limb shaker and weigh that fruit. Lastly, to establish the bee habitats, frost seed in the fall —or early winter in the case of establishment in NW Michigan.

Despite the fact the Farm Bill hasn’t passed yet, we will be moving forward with this project with the support of Michigan State University and the Michigan fruit industry. We have great collaborators on this project, and we are already looking forward to blossoms counts next spring. We hope that the results from this project will support long-term sustainability of specialty crops, such as cherries and apples, by increasing growers’ ability to better manage pollinators for improved crop yield.