What’s the Buzz on Pollinators?

This honey bee is collecting necter from a Mesa Red Gaillardia flower.

 What do your favorite pair of blue jeans and the apple you ate for breakfast have in common? At some point in time, a pollinator helped set the process in motion to get a crop from the field to you.

The Value of a Bee

According to the National Academy of Science, there are more than 250,000 known species of flowering plants on Earth. Seventy-five percent of those species rely on animal-assisted pollination, including the plants that produce a large portion of our food, fiber and oils.

An estimated $212 billion globally and $15 billion nationally have been attributed to pollination service by pollinators, according to the Xerces Society. Thirty percent of world food production relies on pollinators. These foods range from apples and almonds to watermelons and pumpkins, while also including plants like alfalfa, which is used as a livestock forage to produce meat and dairy products.

Pollinators also play an important role in the pollination of crops like cotton, which is ultimately used to make your favorite jeans.

Cotton is an important crop in West Texas and drives the regional economy. Lubbock County and the surrounding 18 counties, make up the largest cotton producing area in the world, often exceeding 3 million acres annually, according to the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. The crop even played its own vital role in the establishment of Texas Tech University.

This is one of the reasons researchers at Tech have teamed up with organizations like Bayer Crop Sciences, the Wildlife Society and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to study native pollinators.

Partnerships

NRCS supported a Conservation Innovators Grant specifically aimed at pollinator research, worth over $300,000 to support the research at Texas Tech.

Without pollinators we would be in real trouble, said NRCS Wildlife Biologist Manuel De Leon.

CIG Program Director and Assistant Professor of Etymology at Texas Tech University, Scott Longing, Ph.D., said the program is aimed at expanding the knowledge of native pollinators in the area, so that future conservation efforts can be carried out.

“We don’t know yet, the value of wild bees and their pollination services,” Longing said.

A Lot To Learn

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent the number of pollinators is declining. According to Longing, this came to the forefront of public attention with Colony Collapse Disorder, a compounded issue that has caused dramatic losses in honey bee populations.

This has led to an abundance of research on honey bees, an important pollinator in the agronomic system, but also a species that is non-native to North America. Longing said the influx of research has also failed to definitively account for declining native populations of bees, mostly due to a lack of information on them.

According to Longing, there are over 900 native species of bees in Texas, with more than 100 species living in the high plains area. However, little is known about these native pollinators. In fact, Longing said his team actually has more species of bees in its collection than the local museum.

“We are trying to find out about pollinator diversity,” Longing said, “so we can really monitor pollinator decline.”

Longing said he and his team have partnered with 19 farmers from across West Texas to set up a variety of research plots. The research plots range from Conservation Reserve Program land to land bordering a vineyard and organic cotton farm, to even a pumpkin farm in Floyd County.

One thing many don’t understand about bees is that while honey bees and some species of bumble bees are social, most other species are solitary. According to the Xerxes Society, most species native to North America make their nests in the soil, where they will tunnel out brood cells to lay eggs.

These solitary bees usually live for about one year, but spend most of their lives developing in their nest. Humans typically only see native bees in their adult stage which last three to six weeks, according to the Xerces Society.

“We want to learn about their habitat,” Longing said, “so we can figure out the best way to manage them, so that they can provide that pollination service.”

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What are they learning?

With the very limited amount of information about the native pollinators in the area, Longing said his team is studying many facets of the native pollinators including their habitats.  One thing the team has already observed is the native bees on the Floyd County pumpkin farm, manage to live in the rotation fields, somehow making it out of the soil before the field is cultivated the next year.

Longing said that particular pumpkin farmer had brought in almost 100 hives of migratory honey bee hives to support pollination services, but the team noticed that only two varieties of the pumpkins were being pollinated by them. The rest were being pollinated by native squash bees.

“Another need, from an economic stand point, is just to learn about pollinator services.” Longing said. “To learn what the different bees are pollinating, and what can benefit from the pollination, from a honey bee stand point and a native bee stand point, and to keep farmers from spending excess money on honey bees that aren’t doing anything for their crop.”

The research Longing and his team are doing stands not only to benefit pollinator conservation, but also has great potential to benefit producers.

According to Longing, recent research conducted by another university showed a correlation between cotton fields that were surrounded by wild vegetation and native bee species, and larger cotton boll sizes due to out-crossing of pollination. Longing said he hopes his project finds valuable information like this that benefits producers and pollinators.

Longing said Texas Tech is located in a unique, but well suited, area for pollinator research to be conducted. The university sits in a transition zone between two insect-rich areas, the Great Plains and the Southwestern United States, which he noted is likely the most diverse area in the U.S. in terms of stinging insects. This rich diversity makes the High Plains an optimal place to gather information about pollinators.

This is one of the reasons Tech was selected for NRCS’ prestigious Conservation Innovation Grant, as well as a native pollinator planting location. The location is one of only four in the nation and is a collaborative initiative between Bayer Crop Sciences and The Wildlife Society to provide forage for native pollinator populations.

The project taking place at Texas Tech could have a major impact on the future of agriculture. With declining numbers of pollinators and limited current knowledge, the future could look grim, but Longing and his team, with the support of their partners, are working to change that.

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