Small fields planted with wildflowers especially to feed bees – called “bee pastures” – could be a way to revive declining bee populations, according to USDA entomologist Jim Cane. For the past few years, bees have been dying at an alarming rate. That’s trouble for farmers who need bees to pollinate their crops. Dr. Cane said bee pastures can help. He told us about planting patches of wildflowers in almond orchards.
Jim Cane: Between the end of bloom on the almonds, in late February or March, and when they harvest, we’re going to insert small patches of these annual wildflowers to feed the blue orchard bees and thereby squeeze out more reproduction.
Cane explained that the almond tree’s blooming period is shorter than the life of the bee. Planting flowers that bloom before or after the almond trees means more food and energy for the bees to reproduce, he said. And that means more bees.
Jim Cane: We’re trying to extend a suitable blooming period so these females can lay more eggs, produce more progeny and thereby be sustainably managed.
After Cane determined the best wildflowers for the bees, bee populations in his experiments increased five fold. He said that almond growers are already using bee pastures, with orchards as large as 30 thousand acres. Cane added that bee pastures are also grown just for breeding purposes, to create huge populations of domesticated bees. Cane said that the idea of bee pastures is not new. It originated with the naturalist John Muir who envisioned bees feeding on large fields of wildflowers. Cane explained that his idea of bee pastures is meant to fit into an agricultural setting, of any size.
Jim Cane: It may look like garden plots, is what I’m envisioning for this smaller scale operation. Or it may look like a quarter acre or a half-acre acre of a small meadow.
Cane explained that special care is needed to enhance bee reproduction, because bees have a low reproduction potential compared to other insects.
Jim Cane: They lay a couple dozen eggs in the course of their lifetime. And they can only produce one or two eggs per day. So it’s very slow reproduction. They need long flowering season with good weather, to reproduce the progeny they’re capable of.
Cane studied blue orchard bees, a species of bee that supplements the work of honeybees. He said honeybees are the most versatile and in-demand bee for pollinating work, but they’ve also been the hardest hit by the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. He said although blue orchard bees are different from honeybees, the same method may be used to increase honeybee populations.
Jim Cane: Using the same concept on a larger scale for feeding honeybees, especially when they’re between crops for migratory beekeepers, I think has great merit.
He said that for the farmers he’s collaborated with, the bee pastures have been working.
Jim Cane: Almond growers, the past couple of years, have been on pins and needles that they’re not going to have enough honey bees for their crops.