By Susan Welch
Susan Welch is a small acreage beekeeper in northern Colorado
Research over the last few decades has helped farmers/ranchers make great strides when it comes to the quantity and quality of food and fiber that is produced in the United States. The amount of fertilizer, water, sunlight and other variables such as cultivation, weed management and pesticide application are commonly used to grow many cultivated crop varieties. One input, however, that is often been left out of the process is pollination. Pollination is the vital reproductive process of plants, the basics of which initially seem quite straight forward, are actually extremely complex and often occur in an open system where variables are difficult to control. As a result the myth that pollination will take care of itself has been perpetuated.
Agricultural operations and beekeeping are not mutually exclusive enterprises. One hundred years ago, every farm had a bee hive to provide honey and beeswax for everyday use. More importantly, they were kept to provide for the pollination needs of the farm or ranch. Now, there is resurgence in interest in bees on the farm – both native pollinators and managed honey bees, according to the Colorado Beekeepers Association.
The need for pollination is so intense for agriculture producers, that hundreds of thousands of honey bee colonies are moved around the country each year. These bees come from all areas across the country just to attend to this vital function. Honey bees are widely used in fruit, vegetable and grain crops. These insects are also extensively employed in seed and oil seed crop production. It is estimated over 90 crops benefit from honey bee pollination and the value of this service to the United States agriculture has been estimated to be about 18 billion dollars!
The honey bee is the insect of choice in most managed commercial pollination. It has significant advantages over other insect pollinators because it is social and develops large populations that become a significant pollinating force. In the past, growers could often get colonies of honey bees relatively inexpensively. In some situations, if the crop produced abundant nectar, beekeepers would even pay to move onto the crop. This means that growers and beekeepers often develop unique symbiotic relationships. In addition, the technology exists to augment population numbers and move honey bee colonies quickly and efficiently.
Many agricultural operations are recognizing the benefits of providing habitat for a variety of pollinators. These beneficial insects work hard at not only providing pollination, but they are also adept at keeping harmful pest populations in check. Establishing habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects is increasingly being used to meet multiple goals: increasing populations of wild native bees, strengthening honey bee hives, and increasing on-farm biodiversity, as well as increasing populations of natural predators.
These beneficial species include many different wasps, beetles, lacewings, predatory mites, and more. Beneficial insects prey upon the kinds of insects that damage crops, so keeping them around can help reduce pesticide applications. Wild beneficial insects protect an estimated $4.5 billion per year in crop value by reducing insect pest damage. Pollinator habitat is recognized as critically important for the long term sustainability of food production and diverse natural habitats.
There is a variety of conditions that inhibit pollinator populations, these include use of pesticides, monoculture cropping, draught and climate shifts. Many agriculturalists have recognized the effects that these conditions have on pollinator populations and are moving to correct them. Multi-species cover crops, companion cropping and flowering plant island implementation have shown significant changes in beneficial insect populations. These practices used in conjunction with integrated pest management practices have shown positive results in plant health and production. These basic tenants are not new; they were the industry wide practice on pre-industrial farms and ranches. Beekeepers biologists and some agriculturists agree that the underestimation of the pivotal role played by managed and native insect pollinators is a key constraint to the sustainability of contemporary agricultural practices. The economic value of such insects to pollination, seed set, and fruit formation greatly outweigh the cost of conventional pest control.