Putting Bees Out to Pasture

By Susan Littlefield

We've all heard of putting the cows out to pasture, but how about bees? In an effort to encourage populations of native bees that can take on pollinating duties as the number of honeybees decline, entomologist James Cane with the USDA Agricultural Research Service has been conducting research into the establishment of "bee pastures."

Unlike cow pastures full of grasses, bee pastures are filled with wildflowers that provide nectar and pollen. Cane has investigated which early-flowering native annuals are best at bolstering the populations of blue orchard bees, a native California species that can be used to help meet the pollination needs of the acres of almond orchards in that state. He has identified five native plant species- Chinese houses (pictured), baby blue eyes, tansy phacelia and California bluebell- that are ideal for bee pastures. They are favored food sources for blue orchard bees, easy to grow, bloom at the same time as the almond trees and flourish in the same soil and climate as the nut trees.

The way pasturing works is the bees are moved from a winter storage area to the pasture in the spring, where they mate and lay eggs. The next spring, some of the new generation of bees are taken to orchards to pollinate the almond trees, while most are returned to the pasture. According to Cane, bee populations could increase by as much as five-fold in a year in a well-managed pasture. He estimates that a mere 10 square yards of flower-containing pasture could produce enough bees by the second year to pollinate three acres of almond trees.

Cane also suggests that this same "bee pasturing" approach might be developed for crops such as apples, pears and cherries in the Pacific Northwest that are also pollinated by blue orchard bees.

For more information on this research, go to: Bee Pastures.

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