More Species Of Bees Pollinate Crops, Making Blueberry Farms See Increased Yield

By Shweta Iyer on May 9, 2014 5:06 PM EDT

bee biodiversity
Research from NC State University finds that blueberries produce more seeds and larger berries if they are visited by more diverse bee species. (Photo: Hannah Burrack, North Carolina)

Blueberries are good examples of insect pollinated plants. Recent research shows that bees not only help in proliferation but also aid in production of larger berries and more seeds. But the key is that pollination should be aided by a diverse population of bees. This research conducted by entomologists from North Carolina State University, will help farmers to produce more yield of blueberries per acre, according to a press release Friday.

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"We wanted to understand the functional role of diversity," says Dr. Hannah Burrack, an associate professor of entomology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the research. "And we found that there is a quantifiable benefit of having a lot of different types of bees pollinating a crop."

The North Carolina weather and soil conditions are perfect for growing blueberries all through the year and are a major source of income for the state.

Within the blueberry fields, the researchers identified five distinct groups of bee species that pollinate the berries: honey bees, bumble bees, southeastern blueberry bees, carpenter bees and a functionally similar collection of species that they termed small native bees.

The researchers found that when plants were pollinated by more than one species of bees there was an increase of $311 worth of yield per acre. For example, if two bee groups pollinated a field, the boost would be $311 per acre; for three bee groups, the boost would be $622 per acre, and so on.

"For North Carolina blueberries as a whole, we calculate the benefit of each group to be approximately $1.42 million worth of yield each year," Burrack says.

"We think the benefit stems from differences in behavior between bee groups, in part depending on the weather," explains Dr. David Tarpy, an associate professor of entomology at NC State and co-author of the paper. For example, southeastern blueberry bees are active in all types of weather while honey bees prefer calm, warm, sunny days.

"This can make a big difference, since blueberries bloom in March and April in North Carolina," Burrack says. "That means the weather can swing from great to awful, as we saw this year."

Previous research shows that having strips of native, flowering plants among blueberry plants or next to the fields helps to increase the declining populations of native bees, over time. But the researchers are conducting experiments to see if crop management can encourage bee diversity at crop sites. "We've shown that there is a real financial benefit associated with biodiversity," Burrack says."The next step is to figure out how to foster that diversity in practical terms."

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