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Pollinators: Bees and Other Insects Will Increase Farm Production

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Supporting resident and migrating pollinators, including bees, not only aids a critical link in the natural ecosystem cycle, but a farm’s production can increase substantially with the presence of ample pollinators.

By giving pollinators safe shelter, water and a supplemental food supply in addition to nectar supplied by crops, their activity on the farm can increase. It’s helpful to remember that while pollinators include the more familiar honeybees and mason bees, they also include various other animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are more than 100,000 different animal species (they say the numbers may be as many as 200,000) which play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on the planet. The most common ones are the insects which include bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles. But they report that as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates, including birds and mammals such as hummingbirds and fruit and nectar-eating bats, also serve as pollinators.

Though butterflies and moths pollinate somewhat differently than honeybees, the more familiar pollinators, they’re still a vital link in nature’s overall pollination plan even though a few of their caterpillars can become pests to farmers growing certain crops.

Butterflies, in general, have very good vision and can also see the color red, which bees cannot, according to the USDA Forest Service. They’re also able to detect ultraviolet light which further helps them find nectar. Butterflies taste with their feet and prefer bright colored flowers that are open during the day and that have wide landing platforms whether the flowers are in close clusters or larger singles. While perching on the flowers, pollen collects on their legs and wings as they hunt around for nectar. Not as much pollen is touched and stuck to their long legs and wings as does pollen on bees, but their flight range is often further, allowing them to spread the pollen they do collect throughout a larger region.

Monarchs, specifically, are known to seek out milkweed to lay their eggs. Their caterpillars feed only on milkweed (meaning they leave farmed crops alone) and milkweed also offers nectar to other important pollinators. But as adults, monarch butterflies need a steady supply of other nectar plants. And with monarchs being migratory, the Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) points out that the timing of the blooming plants needs to correspond with the timing of the monarchs’ arrival. Therefore, even if a list of favored monarch nectar plants is planted and nurtured on the farm, climate change and other variables could mean those plants’ blossoms open too soon or too late to feed the butterflies when they are passing through. The MJV website, monarchjointventure.org, has articles and links for rural landowners interested in aiding both the western and eastern monarch populations.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch (larva and butterfly) feeding areas as well as helping to manage their migratory corridors. According to MJV, agricultural fields used to be an important source of milkweed for monarch caterpillars because historically, native milkweed grew alongside crop plants. The widespread use of herbicides and herbicide- tolerant crops diminished much of the milkweed growing on farmlands. Though milkweed can tolerate light tilling, it can’t survive herbicides. MJV suggests that farmers plant native flowers in fallow fields, hedgerows and farm field margins which combine early, middle and late blooming species with blossoming times that overlap. If possible, they suggest allowing native milkweed to either grow in unused portions of the farm, or to use either no-till or low-till farming techniques and allow more milkweed to grow alongside crops.

Though the cost of the initial native milkweed and flower planting, including the time itself to plant the pollinator habitat, can be an obstacle for some farmers, others may be able to synergize their monarch (or other butterfly and moth pollination projects) with agritourism to at least indirectly benefit the farm’s bottom line. CSA farmers, for example, can request help, donations and feedback from their members regarding the farm becoming a monarch or butterfly habitat. Farms that benefit financially from positive public exposure can use the project to attract media attention. The MJV also offers information on Citizen Science projects CSA members can take part in. Farmers involved in farm-to-school programs may be able to coordinate farm tours with area teachers and classrooms. The tours can be fee-based at cost-per-head, or can be used as a method to sell other on-farm products directly as a result of visitors coming to the farm to see the monarch habitat. And of course, a native nectar garden also feeds other pollinators which can directly enhance the production of many farm crops.

Various moth species contribute to butterflies’ pollination for daytime bloomers as well as for plants with flowers that open at night. In one extreme case, the crop cannot survive without its partnership with a specific moth. The yucca plant which is grown and sold far from its original native habitat depends on the yucca moth for survival. The adult yucca moth doesn’t seek nectar because its lifespan is so short. But after mating, the female moth carefully scrapes off pollen from yucca flowers, holds the pollen in a lump under her “chin,” then purposefully and carefully deposits pollen into the stamen of a flower.

Not only that, she makes sure the pollen is deposited in a different flower from the one she collected it from to ensure cross pollination. She eventually lays her eggs in the flower, and though some of her young will consume a few seeds, the number of yucca seeds eaten in general does not put a dent in the number of seeds that will be formed because of her pollination. She can even detect if a flower already has eggs laid in it and if so, she moves on to another flower, which makes sure no flower will have too many of its seeds eaten because of too many larvae. Though yucca plants are grown and sold far beyond their area of origin, even into Canada, the moths have managed to follow them and adapt to the newer climates.

This report appears in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

RESOURCES


For those interested in adding habitats or gardens specifically for pollinators, the following sources offer free or low cost guides.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers basic overviews for planting pollinator gardens and building bee nesting blocks. From there, it offers links to more in depth information and instructions; www.fws.gov/ pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology offers a low-cost publication on attracting native pollinators. It provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings. The full-color digital version is currently $4.95. The black and white print edition is currently $7.95; attra.ncat.org/ attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=75.

When planting for pollinators, native plants are usually encouraged. Landowners can contact their local or state Native Plant Society for names of and resources for appropriate species.

The Pollinator Partnership of the NAPPC offers free eco-regional pollinator planting guides and resources for pollinator gardens and lists the types of blossoms the various pollinator species groups (bees, bats, etc.) prefer; www.pollinator.org.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a number of documents and leaflets on conserving pollinators; plants.usda.gov/ pollinators/NRCSdocuments.html.

Some state’s cooperative extension services offer guidance on planting for local resident and migrating pollinators. To find extension services in any given state, visit the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s extension page; www.extension.org.


 

 

Book Review: Triumphs & Tribulations in the Heartland

Lentil Underground Book Review

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America by Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America;

by Liz Carlisle; book review by Chris Walters

Liz Carlisle was four years into a good career as a country singer when the cognitive dissonance got to be too much. Better to let her tell it:

“… Born and raised in Montana, I’d grown up on country radio, and I loved weaving romantic agrarian lyrics into pretty melodies. When I’d graduated from college, with a new record to sell and a full schedule of shows for the summer, it had seemed like the greatest thing in the world to travel through rural America and tell its story. But now that I’d crisscrossed the country several times in my station wagon, I knew the sobering truth. I’d been lying.

As I listened to people who came up to chat after my shows, it dawned on me that life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a grueling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and the corporations that bought their grain.”

Right away it’s clear she can write, and what a joy her story of a short-lived music career might have been had she chosen to write that kind of book. Carlisle had other horizons on her mind, though, and it is to Montana she returns after a spell working in the office of that state’s then-freshly minted U.S. Senator, Jon Tester. He supplied the link to the story she took up after studying journalism with Michael Pollan at UC-Berkeley, the lentil farmers behind a company called Timeless Natural Food, originally known as Timeless Seeds. These hardy souls were staking out a future for post-industrial farming in Montana, a semi-arid state known for short growing seasons, long distances and lack of major cities. Industrial wheat was a king whose rule was close to absolute. Continue Reading →

Humans Have Huge Impact on Soil Loss

Human impact on soil loss.A new University of Vermont study on soil loss reveals that removing native forest and starting intensive agriculture can accelerate erosion so dramatically that in a few decades soil loss is as high as would naturally occur over thousands of years. Along the southern Piedmont from Virginia to Alabama — that stretch of rolling terrain between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain of the Atlantic Ocean — clay soils built up for many millennia. Then, in just a few decades of intensive logging and cotton and tobacco production, as much soil eroded as would have in a pre-human landscape over thousands of years, the scientists note. The study on soil loss was presented in the journal Geology and reported in the March 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Lighting for Seedlings

Seedlings.tifPurdue University researchers’ success in using red and blue LEDs as the only source of light to grow ornamental plant seedlings indoors has led to a new phase of determining whether they can reduce production time with more colors. The research is important because most seedlings are grown in greenhouses in the late winter and early spring, a time when sunlight with enough growing power is low, especially in northern states. Seedlings need to grow at that time to meet spring and summer sales of bedding plants, so supplemental lighting from electric lamps is typically needed. The research shows that sole-source LED lighting could be used to grow ornamental plant seedlings indoors with a technique known as multilayer production, in which plants are stacked on top of each other on shelves such as in a warehouse where there is no sunlight. Some companies, especially in Japan, already use multilayer production for leafy vegetables.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Diverse Plant Communities Resist Invasive Species

diverse-oak resist invasive.tifHerbivores consume more nonnative oak leaf material in areas with diverse native plant communities than in less diverse communities. Why diverse plant communities tend to resist invasion by non-native or invasive species remains uncertain. Researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Morton Arboretum have been examining the potential role of herbivores on the invasion of nonnative plant species in diverse plant communities. The researchers examined herbivore damage on leaves of non-native oak trees in arboreta across the United States. They found that non-native oaks in regions with high oak species diversity showed more leaf damage than those in regions with low diversity.

This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Soil Ecosystems: Maintaining Critical Microbial Life

earthworm soil life.tifSoil ecosystems aren’t always the first things people notice when they are in nature.

When asked to describe a forest or a meadow, most people would probably begin with the plants, the species diversity or the color of the foliage. They probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the soil ecosystems and the critical microbial life. But a new Yale-led study shows the importance of earthworms, beetles and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable soil ecosystem services they provide.

During a 3-year study, researchers found that removing these small animals from the soil of a replicated Scottish sheep meadow altered the plant species that grew in the ecosystem, reduced overall productivity and produced plants that were less responsive to common agricultural management, such as fertilization.

The results reflect the long-term ecological impacts of land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to agricultural land, researchers say.

“We know these soil animals are important controls on processes which cause nutrients and carbon to cycle in ecosystems, but there was little evidence that human-induced loss of these animals has effects at the level of the whole ecosystem on services such as agricultural yield,” said Mark Bradford, lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Soil Ecosystems: Nutrient Additions

New research from Iowa State University shows that agricultural inputs such as nitrogen and phosphorus alter soil microbial communities and soil ecosystems. Adding nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, commonly used as fertilizers, to the soil shifts the natural communities of fungi, bacteria and microscopic organisms called archaea that live in the soil, said Kirsten Hofmockel, associate professor.

Hofmockel and other scientists associated with the Nutrient Network, a global group of scientists, revealed that microbial community responses to fertilizer inputs were globally consistent and reflected plan responses to the inputs. Many soil microbes perform helpful functions in the native ecosystems and altering those microbial communities may have negative environmental consequences, Hofmockel said. The researchers found nutrient additions favored fast-growing bacteria and decreased the abundance of fungi that share a symbiotic relationships with grassland plants.

This encapsulation of the research is from the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Soil Ecosystems: Synthetic Nitrogen Lingers for Decades

Nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops lingers in the soil ecosystems and leaks out as nitrate for decades towards groundwater — “much longer than previously thought,” scientists in France and at the University of Calgary say in a new study.

Thirty years after synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer had been applied to crops in 1982, about 15 percent of the fertilizer N still remained in soil organic matter, the scientists found.

After three decades, approximately 10 percent of the fertilizer N had seeped through the soil ecosystem toward the groundwater and will continue to leak in low amounts for at least another 50 years.

The findings show that losses of fertilizer N toward the groundwater occur at low rates but over many decades, says Bernhard Mayer, U of C professor of geochemistry and head of the Applied Geochemistry Group.

That means it could take longer than previously thought to reduce nitrate contamination in groundwater, including in aquifers that supply drinking water in North America and elsewhere, he says.

“There’s a lot of fertilizer nitrogen that has accumulated in agricultural soils over the last few decades which will continue to leak as nitrate towards groundwater,” Mayer says.

Canada and the United States regulate the amount of nitrate allowed in drinking water. In the 1980s, surveys by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey showed that nitrate contamination had probably impacted more public and domestic water supply wells in the United States than any other contaminant.

The study, “Long-term fate of nitrate fertilizer in agricultural soils,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This summary appears in the December 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.