Pollinators and honey bees

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff

A good deal of attention has been given to honey bees and other pollinators the last several years. Honey bees first began to draw notice back in 2006 when concerns over Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) first emerged. CCD is defined by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service as a dead colony with no adult bees and with no dead bee bodies, but with a live queen, honey and immature bees. More recently, attention has been given to habitat for other pollinators as well. The USDA has looked at existing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts in a Mid-Contract Management (MCM) process to address growing pollinator habitat concerns. Along with reducing soil erosion and improving water quality, CRP aims to ensure plant diversity and wildlife benefits as well. Several producers with CRP contracts for grass filter strips received letters from the FSA offices notifying them of recent revisions to the MCM process that require all CRP contracts undertake a MCM activity. These activities are designed to ensure plant diversity and wildlife benefits while protecting soil and water resources. According to the USDA, a new activity to be implemented involves the installation of wildflower and milkweed plants. The activity is intended to benefit Monarch butterfly populations which have been declining across North America. The wildflowers provide important nectar sources while the milkweed plays a vital role as host plants in the Monarch life cycle.

Being able to properly identify pollinators in the various Orders is important when management decisions are considered, according to Curtis Young, an Ohio State University Extension educator.

“Honey Bees are in the Order Hymenoptera. This Order also includes: bumble bees, digger bees, orchard bees, metallic bees (sweat bees), leafcutter bees, and carpenter bees,” Young said. “Bees all share some common characteristics with one another. They have skinny waists, long antennae, and ovipositors modified as stingers. All bees have two pairs of wings, (4 wings total), and three pairs of legs.”

True bees have their bodies covered with a lot of hairs, which aids in plant pollination. The hairs pick-up and carry the pollen as they travel from plant to plant.

“The European honey bee is the only bee that produces honey as a by-product as a social colony. All the rest of the bees collect nectar and pollen, but they make it into a feed directly for the offspring, they do not have the secondary product to go with it,” Young said. “There are three broad groups of native bees. The ground-nesting bees are solitary bees, and prefer to live in the lighter sandy soils. The cavity nesting bees are also solitary bees and live in open cavities of structures. The bumble bees are social colony bees that are commonly used in horticulture and agriculture for plant pollination. Greenhouses will use bumble bees to pollinate plants like tomatoes. The bumble bees are typically docile, and will not harm you unless they or their colony are disturbed.”

There are other pollinators in the insect world from several different Orders. The Order Coleoptera includes the beetles. The Order Diptera includes flies, and the Order Lepidoptera are the moths and butterflies.

“The pollinator beetles typically have hairy bodies, and as they feed on the pollen and nectar, they also carry pollen from plant to plant, similar to bees,” Young said. “There are also some flies that have hairy bodies that also carry pollen from flower to flower. Surprisingly true flies are very effective, and some of the most common, yet overlooked pollinators.”

Attracting pollinators becomes a management function if a producer desires to maintain these insect numbers.

“There needs to be something flowering with pollen and nectar to attract and maintain the populations,” Young said. “Our typical cash grain cropping systems are not great attractants for pollinators. The grass crops such as corn and wheat are self-pollinated, and do not flower in a way to attract or maintain the pollinator insects.

“Soybeans are just marginal as attractors for bees and other pollinators. Soybeans are technically self-pollinating, and the closed flowers are not as popular, however honey bees will feed on soybean pollen and can often be found in soybean fields when the beans are in bloom.”

This leads to a note of caution when spraying soybeans. There are certain times of the day that bees are typically feeding and more active in the fields.

“Most often, pollinators are active in the middle of the day, so earlier in the morning or later in the evening are more friendly times to apply chemicals and reduce the risk to the pollinator insects,” Young said.

Knowledge of where apiaries are located is also an important consideration.

“Honey bees will forage a little over 4 miles from home. Bumble bees will forage over 6 miles from home. The smaller bees have a narrower range,” Young said. “It is important to consider how far you are located from the apiary to determine what impact your chemical application may have. Now is a good time to drive around and look for the bee boxes, which are easier to see along the edges of fields this time of year.”

Cover crops are one way to provide habitat for pollinators, however the correct species need to be included in the mix.

“When looking at cover crop options, the grass cover crops, such as cereal rye, winter wheat, barley, oats, and teff are of little to no attractiveness to pollinators,” Young said. “The legumes, such as alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, clovers, vetch, and cowpeas are extremely attractiveness to the pollinators. Cover crops such as the forbs and broadleaves like buckwheat, brassicas, canola, and sunflowers can also be attractiveness to pollinators if they bloom in time.”

While some cover crop mixes can be great attractants of pollinator, there still needs to be management decisions made regarding crop termination dates to get the desired effectiveness. “Many cover crops do not mature fast enough to be available to pollinators before we terminate them. Buckwheat is fabulous when it blooms at attracting a host of pollinating insects, but the period of time it is in bloom is very short, and if it is a mono-culture cover crop, the pollinators will quickly run out of a food source,” Young said. “Since many cover crops will only bloom for a short period of time, there need to be alternative sources of pollen and nectar from other species.”

Weeds can also be a good source of pollen for insects, but weed control is another consideration in pollinator management.

“Farmers need to be aware of which pollinators are foraging, which plants they are working in, (including the weeds), and the time of day they are the most active,” Young said. “Chemical weed control can and should be performed, but time of day to be least impactful to the pollinators can be considered. This is very true in the spring when many of the winter annual weeds are in full bloom.”

Spring planting and “dust” issues can cause unintended off-site insecticide applications that can affect pollinators.

“Modern planters use a vacuum system to move the seed. Treated seeds often require talc to ensure uniform planting. The talc dust is exhausted with air during and after planting. The talc drifts to field edges and can contaminate weeds, trees and shrubs in flower, which is then gets carried back to the bee colonies by the hairs on their bodies,” Young said. “Talc replacements should be considered.”

It is important to read chemical labels and pay attention to the new EPA Bee Advisory Box that gives details for proper care.

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