Beyond Honeybees: Pollinator-Friendly Farming for the Future
Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
April 8, 2016
Imagine a world without strawberries, apples, chocolate, coffee, squash, or almonds. More than three-quarters of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts we eat rely on pollinators like honeybees. The phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has raised concerns about honeybees over the last decade, and although CCD is no longer the primary worry, honeybee losses continue to rise.
But many other pollinators are also in peril. A timely new report from the United Nations shows troubling trends that threaten the future of pollinators and our food supply. Human activities are largely responsible—and the solutions are also in our power.
According to the report, pollinators worldwide are being driven to extinction by habitat destruction and degradation, intensive agriculture, pesticide use, pollution, invasive alien species, pathogens, and climate change. In some regions, 40% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are endangered. More than 16% of vertebrate pollinators, like bats and birds, are also threatened.
The UN report’s solutions to the crisis include protecting natural habitats, restoring native vegetation, and planting flower corridors to connect wild areas. Reducing pesticide use and using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can also increase the abundance and diversity of pollinators. Researchers and farmers in California have been already working together to create diverse landscapes where crucial pollinator populations can thrive.
As honeybees face increasing threats, native bees provide new hope for farmers who rely on pollinators for crop production. Since 2009, Frog Hollow Farm, a 143-acre organic fruit farm in Brentwood, has been partnering with the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab and the USDA Natural Resource and Conservation Service to promote native bees in agricultural areas.
Among California’s 1,600 native bee species, you’ll find bumblebees, cuckoo bees, mining bees, sweat bees, and carpenter bees, among others. They come in an array of colors, such as bright green, black with white polka dots, and metallic blue, as well as all sizes, from a few millimeters to two centimeters long.
“Farmer Al” Courchesne was excited to be the first farmer chosen to work on the “Farming for Native Bees” project, headed by UC Berkeley Professor Gordon Frankie. “Pollination is important to fruit production, but I’m also interested in increasing biodiversity in any way possible and beautifying the farm with amazing pollinator plants,” he says.
Farmer Al regards biodiversity as a safeguard against the unknown challenges created by climate change and drought. “Climate change creates a lot of uncertainly for agriculture. We’re seeing the effects already, especially because of the drought,” he notes. “Anything we can do to hedge our bets, we’re going to take a very careful look at it.”
According to Sara Leon Guerrero, Project Manager and Research Associate at the Urban Bee Lab, the key to maintaining healthy native bee populations is creating the right habitats. “Bees pollinate the trees only during a short period, February through March,” she says. “But if you don’t provide resources for the entire year, the bees won’t be in as good shape. The more resources, the healthier the bee populations.”
The Bee Lab plants both native and non-native species on agricultural land. “Our approach is bee-centric, not native-centric,” explains Sara. “We shouldn’t ignore non-native plants if the bees are using them. For example, 65 species of bees use lavender, which flowers late into November, so it’s a great resource for bees, in addition to being beautiful.”
Under Berkeley researchers’ guidance, Frog Hollow has planted 45 different species of bee plants at the end of and between orchard rows, and in three habitat gardens in the middle of orchards. “Planting the bee plants closer to the crops provides greater penetration into the orchard,” says Sara. Approximately 600 plants have been added to the farm without taking any land out of production. “It’s amazing where you can find small areas for bee plants on a farm.”
In choosing and caring for plants, Sara must take into account the practicalities of farming. For example, sage plants are ideal because they are drought resistant and hardy, and also tough enough to bounce back if a tractor runs over them.
After seven years of collaboration with researchers, the number of native bee species at Frog Hollow has increased from 19 to 50. The bee plants also attract flies, wasps, butterflies, and birds. Bees are the workhorses, but non-bee insects also play a vital role in global crop pollination. A recent study found that 39% of visits to crop flowers are made by other insects.
“Diversity provides an insurance policy so the food system won’t collapse if honeybees collapse,” says Sarah.
Building on the successes of projects like Frog Hollow’s garden, “Farming for Native Bees” has expanded its work to more farms in Brentwood and Ventura County. “It’s very exciting to see how the partnership between researchers and farmers has evolved. Once you give farmers information and start the dialogue, they take it to a level that we never even imagined,” says Sara.
For Farmer Al, partnering with scientists to integrate this groundbreaking research into the landscape of his farm has been a source of pride and discovery. “Farming practices often converge with the needs of bees and native bee plants. It’s up to us as farmers to make it work,” he says. “Whenever I give a farm tour or lecture, I talk about the native bee project. We’re sharing our knowledge with other farmers as much as possible and getting the word out.”
To learn more about pollinators, visit CUESA’s Food Shed tent at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays in the south driveway. You can also find Frog Hollow Farm at the market on Saturdays, behind the Ferry Building.
Native bee photo by Rollin Coville, courtesy of UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab. Orchards and Farmer Al courtesy of UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab. Sara Leon Guerrero courtesy of Frog Hollow Farm.