Bringing Attention to the Value of Pollinators

Posted on Apr 12, 2021
Tammy Potter sampling honey bees for the 2020 USDA Honey Bee Health Survey. Photograph provided courtesy of USDA.

There’s more to it than just honey bees

As thoughts of spring begin to surface, especially in the agricultural world, among countless farm families, they get excited to plant a new crop or see fruit trees blossom fill the air across the Commonwealth. 

But those living and working on the farm aren’t the only ones preparing for spring. In the world of pollinators, they too, are getting ready to do their jobs, one that so many crops depend on.

Tammy Horn Potter, Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s State Apiarist, says while the honey bee is the first that comes to mind when thinking about pollinators, in the bee world alone, there are many different species that contribute in many different ways.

“There are 20,000 species of bees around the world, and North America has approximately 4,000 of them, many of which can be seen in your backyards such as bumble bees,” she said. “You may also see the very first of the spring bees that we call “miner bees,” which are solitary, but burrow in underground tunnels and create “tiny volcanoes” on bare soil.  Since they are solitary, they are quite docile, have a short season, and not aggressive. They're one of the first signs of spring.”

Another common bee to be found in this region is called a Blue Orchard or Mason bee, which tend to pollinate apples, cherry, and peach trees.  Although these bees are solitary, the females will lay their eggs in tubes and then “caulk” the entrances with a mud that they create (hence, mason). These bees are excellent pollinators for strawberries, added Potter.

“Many people aren't fond of the sweat bee because they have negative interactions with it, but it too is a common pollinator,” she said.

Bees aren’t the only pollinators around. Hummingbirds and some butterfly species including the Monarchs are also included.

Pollinators are not just pretty to look at, their services mean big bucks to the economy. According to information from Bayer, between $235 and $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on their contribution. Information provided by the American Farm Bureau Federation notes that, economically, honey bees contribute more than an estimated $15 billion to the agricultural economy with 90 or more U.S. crops dependent on insect pollination.

But in order to be most efficient in growing crops requiring pollination, there is a lot to learn about what pollinators are best for which crops.

Alfalfa, for instance, is a crop that is pollinated much better by the Alfalfa Leaf Cutter Bee, emphasized Potter. However, honey bees can also be used because these bees are more versatile.

“Honey bees are what we call ‘generalist pollinators,’ and they will get nectar and pollen from a wide variety of flowers,” Potter said. “But a lot of the native bees, what you may consider to be unmanaged bees, are more specialized and have adapted to specific flowers and floral strategies, such as color, odor, and petal structure.”

This is certainly the case with Bumble bees, which are great for blueberries. Potter said the assumption by many beekeepers is that honey bee hives can be placed next to blueberry bushes and all of the pollination needs would be met, but that couldn't be further from the truth because the Bumble bees are actually better pollinators for blueberries.

Matching the right pollinator with the crop can get to be a little complicated, according to Potter. Therefore, the educational component of beekeeping and pollinator protection is critical in making good decisions for crops and the pollinators, themselves.

Luckily there are many resources to turn to in this state including KDA, the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association and University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Extension in addition all the higher education entities as well as local beekeeping organizations.

One of the things that KDA has done is to create an electronic app, Pollinator Protection App, that allows farmers who may be using a chemical on a crop or in an orchard to register the area that will be sprayed, along with the time and day that it will be sprayed, and the product that will be used. This information is then sent to any beekeeper that is within a five-mile vicinity via a text or an email, if the beekeeper has registered his or her apiaries.  The service is free, anonymous, and typically takes about five minutes to create an account.  The farmers can be compliant with federal label laws, and can print off the notification of when the application was scheduled. 

“KDA created the app in 2017, and every year more and more people use it as they learn about it,” Potter said. “We've been trying to get the word out because, I think many people in Kentucky, farmers especially, know that pollinators are in peril and they don't want to do something that would cause those numbers to decrease any further, but they may not always know that their neighbors around the corner have decided to try beekeeping for the first time.”

With the interest in beekeeping increasing every year, the app can help provide valuable information to agriculture producers across the state. Kentucky is also home to several beekeeping schools made possible through Cooperative Extension and Kentucky State University’s Beginning Farmer series to assist new and experienced beekeepers in a number of areas related to their hives.

Potter, who maintains her husband’s apiaries on two family farms, said many simple things can be done to help maintain the health of pollinators of all kinds especially as if relates to chemical applications.   

“We have an orchard on one of our farms and wait until 5:00 or 6:00 at night so that we're not applying anything when insects are flying,” she said. “Another thing that farmers can do is really simple, they can go out 48 hours before they apply a product and mow all of the attractive flowers that could be in bloom, so that those flowers are not attractive to insects. That action clears the area of attractive forage for when you do apply that product.”

There are other practices that have proven to be beneficial to the environment, as a whole, when it comes to production agriculture, including the technology that helped create GMO crops, no-till production measures, and the use of cover crops to help maintain soil health in a very natural way, all of which contribute to less use of chemicals and better care of the soil and the environment.

Potter also recognizes the benefits of other technologies that help to protect pollinators.

“I think the technology in agriculture gets more specialized every year. A great example of that is air blast sprayers, which better target areas of application and lessen the possibility of any spray-product drift,” she said.

Still, communication and education seem to be the most effective and cheapest tools in promoting and protecting pollinators of all species in all places.

Maintaining hives can provide many rewards but also many challenges, so Potter warns that beekeeping may not be something producers, who depend on pollinators, need to take up on their own. She said in some cases, those producers (organic farms) may allow beekeepers to leave their hives on the property on more of a permanent basis. But there are some commercial beekeepers in the state that move their hives to areas where needed, such as pumpkin or watermelon areas.

Having a relationship with these types of experienced beekeepers is often the best route to go for producers. But for those who want to get into the pollinator business, Potter emphasized it is not a quick study.

“I try to tell people to not spend a dime on bees or equipment until you have spent an entire year going to local bee association meetings, getting a subscription to a trade journal, such as American Bee Journal, or Bee Culture, and spending a entire calendar year learning the biology of a beehive,” Potter said. “Spend your money and time on education. Then, once you've done that, if you're still interested, that's when you can purchase your equipment, your protective clothing and your bees.”