There is no doubt that insect pollination is a vital service for both wild and agricultural systems. Without insect pollinators, roughly a third of the world's crops would flower, only to fade and then lie barren. Unmanaged native bees provide critical pollination services to many important crops. Learn about research on wild bees here at Cornell. Our goals are two fold: Introduce you to ongoing research at Cornell on wild and alternative pollinators and provide a national list of informative webpages on wild pollinator biology, importance and conservation.
Check out these guides and links:
- Wild Pollinators of Eastern Apple Orchards and how to conserve them
- Decision-Making Guide for Bee Supplementaion of Pumpkins Fields
- Wild Pollinator Web Resources
Cornell's Wild Pollinator Research
Until recently, honey bees have been so easy to manage that pollination by wild bees has largely been ignored in agricultural systems. However, with disease and competing demands reducing honey bee supplies and increasing the cost of hive rentals, the viability of depending on other bees for pollination has become an important question. Indeed, scientists are discovering more and more that unmanaged "wild" pollinators also contribute substantially to crop pollination and they do so for FREE!
Honey bees will no doubt remain a key pollinator for agricultural systems, but they are but one bee species among 3000 found in North America, 450 of which live in the eastern United States. Read on about Cornell research that investigates the role these wild and alternative pollinators play in pollination of agricultural crops.
We are conducting a long-term survey of native bees in apple orchards in Western New York in order to understand the role wild bees may play in apple pollination. Our surveys indicate that wild bees can outnumber honey bees in orchards. Over our entire study region, we have collected over 100 different bee species visiting apple blossoms. Careful pollination experiments have established that the dominant wild bee visiting apple deposits more pollen per-visit than honey bees, and is, therefore, providing important free pollination services. We are in the process of identifying elements of the surrounding landscape and orchard management that determine native bee abundance and diversity in orchards. Future research projects will focus on connecting bee diversity and abundance with fruit production and/or quality, and will assess pathogen and pesticide loads of wild apple pollinators. Our research suggests that wild bees provide important pollination services that may insure against honey bee declines in North America.
Many vegetable crops are either dependent on, or produce higher yields when pollinated by bees. One economically important crop in New York that requires pollination by bees is pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo). In the eastern U.S., honey bees (Apis mellifera) and two native species, the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) and the squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa) are the most abundant species that pollinate pumpkin. Our recent research has shown that B. impatiens is an efficient pollinator on an individual basis, depositing more pollen per visit and needing fewer overall visits to a flower to produce a large pumpkin fruit compared with equivalent visits by either A. mellifera or P. pruinosa. Our research examined whether pumpkin yield (fruit weight) could be increased by supplementing fields with either B. impatiens hives or A. mellifera hives. After two years of research, results indicated no yield increase in fields supplemented with bees (regardless of species) compared with those not supplemented. Moreover, there was not an increase in B. impatiens visiting pumpkin flowers in B. impatiens-supplemented fields, nor was there an increase in A. mellifera visits to pumpkin flowers in A. mellifera-supplemented fields. Based on these results, we are investigating the following questions:
- Will an increase in stocking density of bumble bee hives in pumpkin fields increase bee visits to flowers and thereby increase yield?
- Are pumpkins in fields in our region already maximally pollinated by wild bees (i.e., no pollen limitation)?
- Where do bees forage if they are not foraging in pumpkin fields?
We are investigating the importance of native pollinators on the production of commercial strawberry. Strawberries are self-compatible plants and for this reason it is widely assumed that they do not need pollination services to increase their productivity and no investment is made to increase pollination services in the field. Interestingly, a preliminary study in 2011 found insect pollinated flowers resulted in substantially better fruit quality and weight. As many as 15 species of wild bees were observed visiting strawberry flowers; the most common being Andrena sp. (Andrenidae) and Lasioglossum sp. (Halictidae).
Future study, by graduate student Heather Connelly, will focus on characterizing the community of wild pollinators associated with strawberry and evaluating their efficacy as pollinators. Heather will also investigate the use of native flower strips adjacent to strawberry fields to provide resources that may attract beneficial insects, including native pollinators and natural enemies. Ultimately, we aim to develop a management plan that growers can use to support and enhance native pollinator populations near their crops.