A simple trick could let beekeepers improve their colonies’ pollination efficiency

Last spring, I was walking through the blueberry fields at the University of British Columbia’s farm when I noticed something peculiar. We have a handful of research colonies near the edge of the blueberry patch, the blueberries were in full bloom, and the bushes were humming with activity. But it wasn’t the honey bees who were humming. It was the bumble bees.

Hardly any of our honey bees were on the clumps of pink and white blueberry bells. Our colonies live at the UBC farm year-round and weren’t placed there to pollinate, so we weren’t concerned about their lack of interest. But later that week, when I inspected the bushes at a large-scale blueberry farm with pallets of beehives brought in specifically for pollination, there weren’t many honey bees on those flower bells, either. And because there wasn’t much good bumble bee habitat, I spotted few bumbles, too.

Why weren’t the honey bees interested? Their lack of visitation creates a bit of a problem. We want the honey bees to pollinate our crops, because in an industrial agricultural setting there often aren’t enough native pollinators around. But for some plants, it’s a bit like trying to get your kid to eat spinach. The bees are reluctant to start foraging on the crop—there are tastier options around, and so they may explore other sources before visiting the flowers we want. Sometimes it’s because the flower shape isn’t great for honey bees. Sometimes it’s because the nectar reward isn’t up to snuff. Sometimes it’s because the flowers are on the outer, rather than the inner, branches of a tree. But could there be a way to make the spinach look more like ice cream?

Walter Farina, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is in the midst of answering that question. He and his research group study foraging behaviour in social insects, including the ants Camponotus mus and Linepithema humile, as well as stingless bees and honey bees. I learned about his work at his plenary lecture for the 2018 International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI) meeting in Guarujá, Brazil, where he told the story of how controversy over von Frisch’s waggle dance eventually led him and his team to develop an easy way to enhance the pollinating power of honey bees for specific crops, which they aptly dubbed “precision pollination.” They are able to train bees to forage on specific crops more efficiently, simply by feeding the colonies crop-scented syrup before moving them into the fields.

Continue reading in the November 2018 issue of American Bee Journal.