Researchers from the Cornell Horticlutrue Section of the School of Intergrative Plant Science and the Department of Entomology have experimented with a rather surprising subject. The Cornell orchards in Ithaca are producing crisp apples– all without the aid of commercial hives of honeybees.
“This is a food security issue,” said entomology professor Bryan Danforth. “We need to know if growers can continue to produce food in the absence of honeybees.”
Populations of imported European honeybees, relied upon for centuries in American agriculture, continue to decline under pressure from an array of pathogens, parasites and other problems. With that key agricultural resource insecure, apple growers in New York – the nation’s No. 2 apple-producing state – face a future of higher hive rental costs or limits on honeybee availability.
Since 2008, Danforth and members of his lab have been surveying bee activity at 20 upstate orchards, including Cornell’s Ithaca and Lansing sites. His team has found more than 100 wild bee species at these orchards, far more than previously thought, with often surprising levels of diversity and abundance.
That idea took flight during a walk through the Ithaca orchards in May 2014. Danforth and farm manager Eric Shatt were checking bee activity when, in addition to the honeybees from six rented hives, they noticed countless wild bees elbowing in for a meal – from mud-building mason bees and honeybee lookalike Colletes inaequalis to solitary carpenter bees and social halictids. They also spotted many species of Andrena, a mild-mannered ground nesting bee that “scrabbles” deep into flowers, a technique former Danforth Lab researcher Mia Park demonstrated is four times more effective at pollinating than “side working” honeybees.
The two agreed to take a leap few large commercial orchards can afford: fly through the next apple blossom season on the wings of wild bees alone. It’s turned out to be a gamble that’s paid off. In the closing days of May, Shatt reported wild bees provided enough fruitlets to support a full crop this year.
While he’s quick to concede wild bees will never replace honeybees in massive agricultural settings, Danforth said research and fieldwork is proving wild bees can play a critical role in saving growers money, easing pressure on vulnerable honeybee hives, increasing sustainability and, most importantly, enhancing food security.
“If you’re an apple grower and you want to make sure you can produce apples for the next 50 years, having the insurance that you have a diverse wild pollinator fauna in and around your orchard will be important,” Danforth said. “Making this industry more profitable and at the same time demonstrating the economic benefits of conserving wild pollinator diversity is a win-win situation for New York agriculture.”