EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University announced earlier this month it was awarded $6.9 million for a research project to develop sustainable pollination strategies for specialty crops in the United States. The grant came through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
"Specialty crops are valued at more than $50 billion every year, and pollination is critical to ensure successful fruit set and profitability of the industry," said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director. "With the recent declines in pollinator numbers, especially honeybees, this grant is extremely important for the sustainability of the specialty crop industry in the United States, which produces the fruits, vegetables and nuts recommended by USDA for a healthy diet."
MSU received a Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant of $1.7 million in 2012 to begin the research, which was also the final year of the 2012 farm bill.
This latest grant, funded through the same source as part of the 2014 farm bill, will enable the researchers to build on the research to ensure specialty crop growers are better able to manage pollinators for improved crop yields.
Rufus Isaacs, MSU AgBioResearch entomologist and extension specialist, will lead the project. "It’s a study looking at wild bees, but it does include alternatives with managed bees, like bumblebees and mason bees," he said. "It’s a large grant and we’ve put together a team of 50 people and 15 organizations.
"This effort is partly about colony collapse disorder, but it’s also about the importance of specialty crops. We’re really excited about the grant. There’s a big team and we’re all working on the goals that have been laid out."
The goal of the study is to develop crop-specific integrated pollination management approaches to diversify pollination sources and maintain consistent crop yields. Researchers, extension specialists and others working in the field are well aware that insects other than honeybees pollinate many crops – but these pollination services are not necessarily managed or sufficiently understood.
MSU’s team includes scientists from Loyola University, Franklin and Marshall College, Penn State, University of Florida, University of Vermont, The Xerces Society, the University of California-Davis and U.C. Berkeley, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and a private company called Pacific Pollination.
The project also includes a large number of collaborating farmers providing in-kind support, such as their land for conducting the research and an advisory board of stakeholders.
According to Isaacs, the research team has been testing bumblebees in watermelon and cucumber fields and mason bees in crops in California, Washington state and Pennsylvania. Crops under study also include almonds, cherries and apples.
According to a research summary from NIFA that was written in 2013, researchers working in California, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and British Columbia have sampled bees and other insects, as well as flowers at each research site. The idea is to test for "management intensity" at fruit, nut and vegetable farms.
More than 100 agricultural fields and orchards were sampled for the following crops across North America: almonds in California, apples in Michigan and Pennsylvania, blueberries in Florida, Michigan, Oregon and British Columbia, cherries in Michigan and Washington, pumpkins in Pennsylvania, raspberries in Oregon and watermelon in California and Florida. Some of the sites will be examined again in upcoming years.
At each site, data collection took place at the field or orchard edge and at three additional locations into the crop. Sites were sampled multiple times through the season. In apple orchards and woodlands last year, researchers placed stocks of O. cornifrons, a species of wild bee, for propagation near Biglerville, Pa. The established population is to be used this year.
Four sites have been identified for using O. cornifrons as the only applied managed pollinator for apples. Blueberry fields in Michigan and Florida are able to use commercially available Bombus, or bumblebee, for pollination. If available, managed colonies of another species of bumblebee are to be added to farms in British Columbia this year.
To read more about this extensive research project, go to the project website at www.projecticp.org or the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/integratedcroppollinationproject