Earlier this spring, instead of hiring commercial honeybee keepers to bring in their hives to apple orchards, Cornell decided to try relying solely on wild bee species for pollination of the blossoms at their Ithaca site. Based on research from the university’s entomology department, the Cornell Orchards knew it had a robust population comprised of twenty-six different wild bee species among the Ithaca apple trees. They counted on this local bee life to do all the pollinating work that the imported European honeybees would have done, and by the end of May it was clear that a full crop’s worth of flowers had been pollinated! We’ve featured plenty of stories about the deeply troubling colony collapse disorder in Apis mellifera and are always eager to emphasize the importance of pollination, so it may seem strange to celebrate the non-use of European honeybees in this case, but the main point here is that the value of wild native bee species should not be forgotten! If commercial honeybees continue to struggle, alternative methods of pollination will be necessary, and fostering local biodiversity is a great way to compensate for that potential eventuality.
As a fun coincidence, I heard about this story because the lead researcher in the wild bee population was my entomology professor sophomore year. You can read more about Professor Bryan Danforth’s role and the Cornell Orchards decision in the piece for the Cornell Chronicle below, by John Carberry:
As the state’s land-grant institution, Cornell University was born to explore science for the public good – a mission that can sometimes require a leap of faith.
Just such a leap is paying off now at Cornell Orchards in Ithaca, as researchers and managers from the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science and the Department of Entomology celebrate a solid spring pollination season for the site’s apple trees. While crisp apples and fresh cider are no strangers to fans of the 37-acre research and outreach site, this year’s crop provides an extra bonus for New York apple growers: proof that pollination can be done commercial honeybee free.
“This is a food security issue,” said entomology professor Bryan Danforth. “We need to know if growers can continue to produce food in the absence of honeybees.”
Populations of imported European honeybees, relied upon for centuries in American agriculture, continue to decline under pressure from an array of pathogens, parasites and other problems. Danforth said honeybee hive managers are seeing losses at 30 to 40 percent each year, with damages during the worst “colony collapse” years topping 70 percent. With that key agricultural resource insecure, apple growers in New York – the nation’s No. 2 apple-producing state – face a future of higher hive rental costs or limits on honeybee availability.
As one of the nation’s leading advocates for native bees as an agricultural asset, Danforth is among 11 faculty members who rely upon Cornell Orchards for research support. Since 2008, he and members of his lab have been surveying bee activity at 20 upstate orchards, including Cornell’s Ithaca and Lansing sites. His team has found more than 100 wild bee species at these orchards, far more than previously thought, with often surprising levels of diversity and abundance. Danforth’s group has detected a total of 26 wild bee species at Cornell’s Ithaca orchard alone.
“That’s why we conceived this whole crazy idea,” Danforth said.
You can read the rest of the original article here.