Feeding Bees Through Diversity

Riley Reed

FFAR Fellow, Washington State University

Pullman, WA

Bee colonies near a sunflower field.

Insects are responsible for pollinating many of our favorite foods ranging from apples to chocolate. In fact, nearly 100 crops globally either require or benefit from animal pollination. Many different animals are capable of pollinating, including bees, flies, beetles, and even bats, but honey bees are by far the most widely used pollinators in agriculture. Honey bees generally work really well with our agricultural system, allowing migratory beekeepers to quickly transport huge numbers of pollinators to a blooming crop and then remove them just as quickly when they are no longer needed. Of course, the delicious honey they make certainly sweetens the pot too!

To fulfill their contracts and make sure crops get pollinated, beekeepers must frequently load their hives onto trucks and trailers to transport them from one field to another. The hives in this picture had just survived the winter and were being loaded for transport to California almond orchards in January.
Bee hives used for pollinating crops are generally kept on pallets which each hold four to six hives. This allows beekeepers to quickly and efficiently load and unload hives using forklifts. Many of these forklifts are specifically designed for beekeeping like the Hummer Bee I am driving here.

Unfortunately, this system isn’t quite as good for the bees. Honey bees need a much more diverse diet than they can acquire from a single crop, forcing some of the bees to look for food outside the field or orchard. Normally this isn’t a problem because there are still plenty of bees in the field, but for seed crops this presents a big risk. For example, if bees are placed on a field of carrot seed, most of the bees will still visit the carrot flowers, but some will fly much further in search of other food sources. If some of those bees visit another carrot seed field along the way, they can transport pollen between the fields. This may not seem like a problem, but it can result in unexpected hybrids being present in the harvested seed, lowering the value of the seed.

In the Columbia Basin, vegetable seed growers already try to avoid this by working together to keep their fields at least two miles apart, but that still isn’t a perfect strategy. When they are struggling to find good food, honey bees can fly incredible distances, even as far as 6 miles. That’s roughly the equivalent of someone in Washington state walking to Nevada to buy groceries!

This mustard has been planted on the edge of a carrot seed field to provide the bees with another source of nectar and pollen. This helps them achieve a more diverse diet without needing to travel a great distance from the field.
These hives have all been placed on a carrot seed field for pollination. The white hives each have a pollen trap or activity monitor attached to the entrance. This allows us to track what plants they are collecting pollen from and how actively they are foraging for food.
Wearing a 'Bee Beard'
Wearing a 'Bee Beard'
To Wear a 'Bee Beard'

To wear a bee beard, you have to first gather several pounds of worker bees, keeping in mind that a pound contains about 3,000 bees. The youngest bees are best for this because they are less likely to sting. These bees are then left in a box overnight with a new queen and plenty of sugar syrup to keep them happy and well-fed. The next day, the queen can be hung from a necklace while several thousand bees climb onto your neck and face to stay close to her.

What is a 'Waggle Dance?'

Despite their lack of vocal cords, bees are very good at communicating. They use an assortment of pheromones, vibrations, and even dances to share information with each other. This includes the waggle dance which involves a bee dancing in a figure eight pattern to communicate the location of a food source. The duration of the middle segment of this dance describes the distance to the food source while the angle of that segment describes the direction of the food source relative to the angle of the sun. For example, this bee is trying to communicate that there is food approximately 1 kilometer west of the hive.

For my PhD research, I am studying how we can better meet the nutritional needs of honey bee colonies during vegetable seed pollination. If we can better meet their needs, we can remove their need to fly those large distances and keep them closer to each field. To do this, I am using both pollinator friendly flowers planted within the fields and artificial feed supplements within the hives. I can then compare where the different hives are foraging by translating the waggle dances they perform after visiting a patch of flowers. These dances tell the other bees exactly how far away the flowers are and in what direction. This is perhaps my favorite part of this research because it is as close to talking to bees as I can get.

The FFAR Fellows Program has been instrumental in my professional and personal development so far. Thanks to this program I have developed a wide variety of new skills, I have developed a much more defined career path, and I have made many new friends. I would like to thank my industry sponsor, Bejo Seed, my advisor, Dr. Brandon Hopkins, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research for making my participation in this program possible.


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