Farmers abuzz about value of bumblebees
RESEARCH | Delaware farmers planted their long rows of cucumbers and watermelons as usual this spring, but when it came time to pollinate the crops, a number of growers abandoned their traditional use of honeybees on certain sections of their fields.
Instead, they pollinated a portion of the crops with native bumblebees, under the guidance of UD researchers, while continuing to use honeybees on the rest. Some strawberry growers also took part in the experiment.
Why the newfound interest in bumblebees?
Part of the reason is Deborah Delaney, an assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology who joined UD last year. A bee researcher who is known to be just as busy as the insect she studies, Delaney quickly developed four major research efforts, including the bumblebee initiative.
That project, a partnership with Gordon Johnson, Cooperative Extension’s fruit and vegetable specialist, could have a direct benefit for Delaware farmers, who depend on animal and insect pollinators for about 80 percent of all crops.
“Over the past decade, managed honeybee populations have been in decline due to colony collapse disorder and other factors,” Delaney says. “In response, growers as well as researchers have started to pay a lot of attention to native pollinators and, in particular, to bumblebees.”
Until recently, bumblebees were the best-kept secret of the pollination world. In Delaware, bumblebee research hadn’t been conducted since the 1940s. And even though home gardeners have long welcomed bumblebees, they only began to be used in commercial growing in the 1980s.
Delaney, assisted by graduate student Jacquelyn Marchese, visited participating farmers’ fields this spring and summer to test bumblebee units by altering their environments and to measure colony survival and crop productivity.