Think like a bee for pollination buzz

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WOOSTER, Ohio – Ohio State University entomologist Jim Tew wants fruit and vegetable growers to “know their bees.”

The bee specialist, who conducts research at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, said bee pollination behavior is so intricate and dependent on so many environmental factors that the key to controlling the bee is to know the bee.

Vital bees. “Bees are no doubt vital for pollination. It’s an instinctual drive. But bees have their own agenda, their own needs,” Tew said.

“We’ve been trying to herd the bee from a state of natural foraging to specific acres of apple, pear or strawberry fields in the hopes that they will take some of their nutrient requirements from our food source.

“Statistically some will, but there is no way to specifically make bees go to target blooms.”

Other bees. Tew said one thing growers need to realize is that there are other bees that pollinate other than the honey bee, and they should try to take advantage of all bee types that might be available to them.

“Honey bees have long been the primary insects. They are known as generalist pollinators. As soon as apple blooms are full, they move on to the next primary crop,” Tew said, adding that Ohio has become the largest honey beekeeper state with more than 3,000 beekeepers.

“But the honey bee may not always be the best pollinator. There are other bees, like native bees, bumblebees and the like that are also important pollinators.

“A grower would want a concert of bees because they pollinate the same flowers, but under different conditions.”

747 pollinators. For example, Tew describes bumblebees as the “747s of pollinators.”

“They can pollinate flowers that honey bees may not be able to get to just because of sheer size,” he said. “A flower will most likely be pollinated just by a bumblebee landing on it.”‘

Bumblebees will also pollinate under cool, windy or wet weather conditions, whereas honey bees avoid such changes in the weather.

Life anew. Unlike honey bees that can pollinate en masse, however, bumblebees are just beginning life anew at a time when strawberry or peach blooms need to be pollinated.

“Early in the season, you basically have one queen that’s pollinating to feed three offspring.

“Then those three offspring will join her to feed additional offspring.

“Eventually, populations will be high enough to do some serious pollinating, but by then the season is over,” Tew said.

“With pollination needed so early in the season, what work can 15 queens do to five-and-a-half acres of apple blooms?”

Environment. In addition to bee behavior, environmental changes can also impact whether a bee will pollinate a bloom, Tew said.

For example, an early or late bloom may make or break a crop as bloom time and a bee’s pollination time may not be in sync.

Additionally, not enough pollination can mean low fruit development, while excessive pollination translates into too much fruit, requiring additional thinning to meet market size.

Encouragement. Tew said some ways growers can encourage bees to pollinate their crop is to provide nesting sites for native bees (bumblebees, for example, use old mice nests); supplement bees to build up colonies during peak blooming periods; and to maintain an orchard or garden near undisturbed nature preserves, woodlands or prairies.

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