By Heather Callaghan
According to a new study, the secret to bounty is the bees…
What will ultimately feed the world? Is it genetic modification? Is it biodiversity?
Well, what can maintain and make that diversity – even your own garden – flourish? I mean, really overflow with bountiful food using less land?
Dr. Hannah Burrack, an associate professor of entomology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the research said:
We wanted to understand the functional role of diversity – And we found that there is a quantifiable benefit of having a lot of different types of bees pollinating a crop.
The researchers looked at blueberries in North Carolina because it is an economically important and well-understood crop that relies on insect pollination. Typical pollination might do the trick, but can we do more?
New research from North Carolina State University demonstrated that blueberries produced more seeds and larger berries if they were visited by more diverse bee species. Amazingly, this allowed farmers to harvest significantly more pounds of fruit per acre. And for each bee group introduced, the yield growth and profit appeared to be exponential.
First, the researchers zeroed in on the five different bee species in the regional blueberry fields: honey bees, bumble bees, southeastern blueberry bees, carpenter bees and a functionally similar collection of species that they termed small native bees.
They even tested a mathematical algorithm that found an increase of $311 worth of yield per acre for each additional new species of bee pollinating. Example: one group would be typical yield, if two bee groups pollinated the field it would boost the yield by $311 per acre; for three bee groups, the boost becomes $622 per acre and so on!
So what is the sum value of each bee group to North Carolina blueberries?
For North Carolina blueberries as a whole, we calculate the benefit of each group to be approximately $1.42 million worth of yield each year.
Holy blueberries, Batman! Holy bees, more like it.
Colleague and co-author Dr. David Tarpy said:
We think the benefit stems from differences in behavior between bee groups, in part depending on the weather.
Different bees for different weather – very important for our crazy weather patterns recently.
For example, southeastern blueberry bees work well regardless of inclement weather, whereas honey bees only perform at their best on calm, warm, sunny days.
This can make a big difference, since blueberries bloom in March and April in North Carolina. That means the weather can swing from great to awful, as we saw this year.
We’ve shown that there is a real financial benefit associated with biodiversity. The next step is to figure out how to foster that diversity in practical terms.
Some research allegedly points to having native, flowering plants near blueberry fields to increase native bee populations over time, but the researchers wish to see what role crop management can play in fostering bee diversity at crop sites.
This is incredibly good news but more and more studies, including this one from Harvard, are demonstrating that neonicotinoid pesticides are largely responsible for major bee declines. So in order for this bee-diversity finding to apply, their health needs to come first – and as you can see, the bees pay it forward to us many times over.
The paper, “Bee species diversity enhances productivity and stability in a perennial crop,” was published May 9 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. Lead author of the paper is Shelley Rogers, a former graduate student at NC State who received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to support this work.