The blueberry bee solution
It’s hard to ignore the importance of bees to life on Earth. Bees pollinate more than one-third of the human food supply, including a large majority of the fruits, vegetables and nuts in your refrigerator and pantry.
It’s not just human life, either. Seventy-five percent of all flowering plants on Earth rely on pollinators to reproduce, and those plants provide the foundation for countless food webs. Considering all that, it’s very concerning that the primary commercial pollinator, the honeybee, is under significant threat from colony collapse disorder (CCD) and other factors.
According to a nationwide survey conducted by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) in 2021, beekeepers in the United States lost 45.5% of their managed honey bee colonies from April 2020 to April 2021. Biologists worldwide have expressed acute concern over this trend, which could have devastating consequences for the U.S. food supply if solutions aren’t found to reverse it.
Dr. Mark Schlueter, a professor of biology at Georgia Gwinnett College, has dedicated his life’s work to finding those solutions. Initially focused on apple orchards, he shifted his research to blueberry patches after receiving an on-farm Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) research grant. Schlueter and his team planted wildflowers adjacent to blueberry bushes on the Pinefield Eco Farm in Hephzibah, Georgia, and will spend the summer observing the plants very carefully.
Working with farm owner Zane Redman, Schlueter’s team planted three plots on one side of the farm consisting of four rows of blueberry plants with a row of wildflower plants to attract native bees running down the center, and three plots without wildflowers on the other side of the farm. Video cameras will be mounted on tripods for observing native bee behaviors in both areas.
The study's primary purpose is to discover if wildflower patches increase native bee abundance and diversity during the blueberry bloom period and, if so, which wildflower species best recruit native bees.
Previous studies have shown floral enhancements on the edge of orchards and farms have significantly affected recruiting or bringing in more native bees. Ideally, this could lead to farms that only have to rely on native bees instead of using honeybee hives that are typically rented and placed on the farm. The recent losses in honeybee hives have significantly increased the cost of renting honeybee hives, which adds to production costs for farmers – costs that are passed to consumers.
In his proposal for the project, Schlueter wrote: “It is prudent to find alternatives to declines in honeybee pollinations well before a serious crisis develops. To safeguard U.S. agriculture, researchers must look not only to finding an answer to CCD but also to anticipate a world that either has a far reduced reliance upon honeybees or is devoid of them entirely. Native bees appear to be the best answer to the problem.”
Schlueter has been working with bees since 2010. In that time, he has been awarded eight SARE grants and done over 100 research presentations with students. He created a new course for the blueberry research project, BIOL 4570 Experimental Methods, that will give 10 students the opportunity to perform real-world bee research over the summer at the farm location.
Schlueter says this research is vital for many reasons.
“Scientists estimate that bees contribute more than $15 billion in pollination services every year,” he said. “The honeybee is the main commercial pollinator and has been in decline since the 1970s. The best supplement or replacement for honeybees are native bees, and the best way to pull in native pollinators is to provide them with habitat enrichments.”
In addition, Schlueter says that boosting native bee abundance will also lower farmer expenses since they won’t need to rent honeybee hives for pollination. The better a crop can be pollinated, the better the yield. All of this leads to more food production for lower costs to the public and, more importantly, provides a backup plan for the potential loss of honeybees as pollinators.
Schlueter and his team plan to submit their final report to SARE in March 2024.