Pollinators on the TC3 Farm

Pollinators on the TC3 Farm – Student Post by Kateri

Bees at Dyce Laboratory
Honey bees in a managed hive buzz as the Sustainable Farming and Food Systems students observe them during a field trip to Dyce Laboratory

Hi all! It is the time of year on the TC3 Farm when flowers are appearing all around us! Tomato plants are flowering and fruiting, wildflowers are filling up the wild areas around our worked fields with color, and the squash plants need their white row covers to be pulled so that pollinating insects can visit their beautiful yellow flowers. All of these things make this a good time to share with our readers about these important friends of ours, the pollinators.

No doubt you have been hearing about bees in the news lately-and with good reason! The populations of these superior pollinators are on the decline-even in Upstate New York. But what do pollinators do for farms? Farmers rely on pollinators like bees to fertilize their flowering crops. Fertilization, occurs by way of the transfer of pollen (male gametes)-found in the plant’s flower and produced by the male part of the plant found there- to the ovule, the female part of the plant also found in the flower. This process must take place in order for the farmer to obtain the fruits of his labor (pun intended!). It is important to clarify that bees are not nature’s only pollinators. Butterflies, moths, and other insects also enable the fertilization of crops by spreading pollen, though not as much as bees. The incredibly designed hairs that cover the bodies of bees and easily pick up pollen as they buzz in flowers, make bees pollinators of extreme importance, and not just to farmers, but to anyone who eats most edible plants!

Many people, when they think of bees, think only of honey bees and bumblebees, but in fact these managed species of bees (honey bees are actually a species foreign to North American fields) make up only three of the 416 species of bees roaming North America. Honey bees and bumble bees are distinct from wild (or unmanaged bees), and differ in how they live out their lives. While managed bees tend to live in social colonies, wild bees make their homes in a greater variety of places and usually do so alone (in solitude). Wild bees can be found nesting in a variety of natural cavities: the ground, stems, wood, and even snail shells. There are even some that are parasitic and lay their eggs in the nests of other bees.

Wildflowers growing in unmanaged areas
Wildflowers growing in the unmanaged areas of the TC3 farm

So, how do we deal with the necessity of pollination on our Farm? Certainly, we can hope that a variety of wild bees are visiting our fields. Our unmanaged fields surrounding our managed ones are full of wildflowers and nesting places, which makes our Farm a welcoming place for wild bees, and we routinely see moths and other pollinating insects in our fields. In addition, our farm, like many, also is the home of beehives (which is managed by an adjunct faculty member of TC3). These managed bees make their way to our fields to gather the food for their hive and make their “pollen messes” while they are at it. But our work with pollinators doesn’t stop there. Since our farm relies on the increased temperature of a closed, heated greenhouse to grow some of our tomato varieties, we invest in bumble bees for pollination. Does this mean the Farm purchases bees? Yes, it does. We order our bees from a company (implabs.com) that will supply us with a little portable hive for bumble bees to live in in our greenhouse as they pollinate the tomato varieties growing there. Some farmers pollinate their closed houses by planting parthenogenetic (self-pollinating) varieties of plants, but for tomatoes-which must be ‘buzz pollinated’-we must spend our dollars on bumble bee friends.

tomato flowers
Tomato flowers in the greenhouse await a visit from a greenhouse bumble bee

So, why are bee numbers declining in Upstate New York? During an exciting trip to the Dcye Laboratory out of Cornell University, the Sustainable Farming and Food Systems students learned, in a lecture given by Dr. Scott McArt, what entomologists are considering to be the main causes of bee decline. These are: the pervasive and irresponsible use of toxic agrochemicals; poor management practices by beekeepers; the destruction of bee habitat; an increase in bee pests and pathogens; and changes in our climate. While this is certainly sad news, there are many ways we can improve conditions for bees, and here, knowledge is power!

How does the TC3 Farm help with the declining bee population in Upstate New York? Beyond providing habitat and food for wild pollinators on the Farm, a significant way in which we help with the pollinator decline is by using Organic farm practices, as well as IPM practices (Integrated Pest Management), on our Farm. Organic farming drastically reduces the amount of harmful agrochemicals that a farmer applies to his land and IPM is a method of pest management that encourages the farmer to gently manage the health of his agroecosystem and to keep pest populations limited through integrated methods, such as maintaining a population of natural predators for a farm pest, or by rotating crops.

Thanks for taking the time to learn here about our endangered pollinators, and make sure to get a chance this year to taste some of the wonderful food that our pollinators on the TC3 Farm help us produce. Have a great day!

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