A sweat bee visits a flower planted as part of a NFWF-funded study of native pollinators. | Credit: The University of Florida

Pollination studies bear fruit

A global effort to bolster biodiversity and establish habitats for native pollinators is gaining steam in the United States, with a new wave of projects underway at commercial farms and golf courses throughout the country.

Using lessons learned from recent studies funded by Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and other sources, scientists and farmers are now planting and studying these planted meadows on farms from California to Florida.

“A big part of why we are doing this is that honey bees are brought to a farm during bloom, then they are taken away to another place for pollination or to produce honey,” explained Rufus Isaacs, an entomologist at Michigan State University who took part in one of the NFWF-funded projects. “The wild bees that visit during bloom, they obviously can’t be taken away. They need something to feed on throughout the summer.

“We’re trying to put those resources back into farmland, and to do that efficiently and in a way that makes economic sense for farmers.”

Taking root

“Operation Pollinator,” a global program started by Syngenta, has been established in Europe for more than a decade and is now being implemented in the United States. The program is based on scientific research and demonstrations with planted habitats of native flowering plants on farms and golf courses around the world that would rebuild populations of native bees and other insects.

The initiative took root in the United States in 2009, when funding from Syngenta, the Kellogg Foundation and other sources helped three research universities study the costs, benefits and best practices of establishing wildflower-filled field margins on farms.

Working with grants administered by NFWF totaling more than $544,000, scientists set up a suite of research projects in different parts of the country. Researchers focused on watermelons at the University of California-Davis, cucumbers at the University of Florida and blueberries at Michigan State University.

Together, the projects shed new light on which native plants grew best in different environments, and which were preferred by honey bees and native pollinators. The research also showed that farmers, many of whom are dependent on managed honey bees for crop pollination, could incorporate these particular plant species to improve crop yields. 

In Florida, researchers found that planted wildflower margins attracted nearly 24 times more native bees than control margins (regularly mown grassy field margin that was not sown with native seeds). In California, scientists documented 17 times more native bees in wildflower plantings.

In related research in the blueberry fields of Michigan, Isaacs and his colleagues found that the increase in crop production due to a jump in native pollinators could pay for such wildflower plantings in just a few years. Their findings were featured in an article published in a recent edition of The Journal of Applied Ecology.

The Michigan State team established native wildflower plantings at five blueberry farms. At each site, a blueberry field next to a wildflower planting was paired with a control field next to a typical field perimeter.

The researchers returned to those sites over a few years to compare pollinator communities within crop fields, wildflower plantings and control fields. They also tracked crop pollination parameters, including percentage of fruit set, berry weight and mature seeds per berry.

They found that a similar abundance of honey bees visited blueberry flowers in both the enhanced and control fields. But the abundance of wild bees and other native pollinators increased annually in fields next to wildflower plantings.

The bottom-line result for the farmer: Planting two acres of wildflowers next to a 10-acre field of blueberries boosted yields 10-20 percent by the third year after the planting was established.

Branching out

The findings of these NFWF-funded projects, particularly those concerning which flowering plants work best in different conditions, helped both Syngenta and the Michigan State teams take their programs to the next level.

Syngenta is now moving into commercial implementation of wildflower buffers at commercial farms in Mississippi, working with the Delta F.A.R.M association of growers, and at more than 60 golf courses across the country.

“We’re entering the implementation phase, and to me, that’s the most exciting part,” said Caydee Savinelli, an entomologist and pollinator expert at Syngenta. “Now you get to see how it works. You get to see the benefits.”

Savinelli noted a recent uptick in public interest in the welfare of pollinators, as well as new funding opportunities for researchers and farmers hoping to play a role.

“There’s so much energy around this, and with all this energy I think we can get something done.”

The NFWF-funded studies also helped springboard the university teams in Florida, Michigan and California into a larger-scale research initiative. Isaacs and his colleagues are currently in the third year of a five-year, multi-state research project funded by a nearly $9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

“The work that we did with the NFWF funding set the stage for us to be competitive for larger-scale USDA funding, where we’re now testing this habitat enhancement for pollinators at commercial farms across the United States,” Isaacs said in late September.

“We’ve established wildflower plantings at over 30 farms, everything from almonds and watermelons in California to cherries and blueberries in Michigan, apples and pumpkin in Pennsylvania and watermelons and blueberries in Florida.”

 

About NFWF

Established by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) sustains, restores and enhances the nation's fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 4,000 organizations and committed more than $2.3 billion to conservation projects. Learn more at www.nfwf.org.


About Operation Pollinator

Operation Pollinator (©, 2014, Syngenta, All rights reserved), is an international biodiversity program to boost the number of pollinating insects on commercial farms. It works by creating specific habitats, tailored to local conditions and native insects. Farmers and golf course managers across Europe and the USA are provided with targeted seed mixtures, along with innovative pesticide use practices and agronomic advice designed to benefit pollinators.

 

 Contact:

 
​Matt Winter, 202-595-2455