Researchers woo wild bees to pollinate crops
CLEMSON — Merle Shepard is working on a honey of an idea. The Clemson insect expert wants to use flower power to attract more bees to farm fields to fertilize crops.
The plan is to plant wildflowers in watermelon fields. The scientists want to test the idea that planting the flowers will draw more pollinators to the melons.
“The target will be watermelon production,” Shepard said. “We’re going try to manipulate the habitat, add in wildflowers to the landscape to help these native bees and provide these ecological system services to the farmers.”
At the end of growing season, the researchers will compare their flower-powered test sites to watermelon fields without added flowers.
Bees are members of a large group of insects known as pollinators. They carry pollen and nectar from the male parts of a plant to the female parts, fertilizing flowering plants. Wild pollinators are vital to about 75 percent of the flowering plants in the world.
“We are currently focusing on native bees,” Shepard said. “These are the ones that farmers used years and years ago even before the European western honeybee came on the scene, and oftentimes when the domesticated are not actually foraging you will see a lot of the native bees out foraging around.”
Shepard already identified 100 species of pollinators in the Charleston area, where he and his colleagues are doing the study at the USDA vegetable lab and the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center.
“Scientists know a lot more about bees out west and the Midwest and Northeast than they know in the Southeast,” Shepard said, “so there’s a real need to find out which ones are here and what they’re doing and whether or not the ones that we’re seeing on various wild hosts and try to figure out their importance in a cultivated host system — watermelon, for example.”
The scientists also will entice the bees to stay in the area by offering housing.
“Providing nesting sites for bees is another way we can help,” Shepard said. “Many bees have their own particular nesting behavior. Some nest in holes in trees. Bumblebees nest in rodents’ burrows, for example, of all things.”
Bees have been dying off, and the problem has raised alarms about the bounty of our food supply.
“It’s been stated that one out of every three bites of food that we have is brought to you by complement of a pollinating species,” Shepard said. ”Loss and fragmentation of habitat, heavy use of pesticides, diseases — we are conscious of what’s causing the declines, and we are trying to develop strategies in order to enhance bee populations.“