NORFOLK — When it comes to strawberries, why not bee fresh bee local?
That’s what occurred to Lisa Horth, a research biologist at Old Dominion University, two years ago regarding the strawberry crop in Virginia Beach.
Strawberry farmers generally use European honeybees, which have to be imported and are suffering from mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, to pollinate their plants.
Why not try pollinating the strawberries with local mason bees, a native species not as susceptible to CCD?
So that’s what Horth and her research assistants have done on several Virginia Beach strawberry farms, and they say it has worked.
“I had been really concerned about the pollinator crisis,” Dr. Horth said. “We rely on imported European bees, which seems like a crazy way to sustain our food supply. In addition to being easier and less expensive and making nice strawberries, I thought, what if we could do something for starving people, that was the bigger dream.”
But first, she had to prove it could be done.
It made perfect sense, she said. Mason bees are early pollinators, meaning they come out in colder weather, and strawberries are early crops. Mason bees don’t roam as far as honeybees, so it would be possible to track which plants were pollinated by which kind of bee based on where researchers placed the hives.
Pungo, of course, has plenty of strawberry farmers. She just had to convince a few of her plan.
“They didn’t know me, they didn’t know if this would work,” she said.
John Wilson, owner of New Earth Farm in Virginia Beach, said he jumped at the chance to participate.
“Did they have to twist my arm? Not at all,” he said. “They just showed up and said what about this, and I said okay. I’m an organic and sustainable farmer and I’m all on board with any research we can do to promote biological solutions to agricultural problems. There’s no guarantee our honeybees will survive, and any other pollination solutions we can come up with, that’s a good thing.”
Barbara Henley, who owns Henley Farms with her husband, got on board as well.
“We’re always interested in new research, and we have allowed a number of experiments out here from local universities,” Henley said. “It’s an important issue with our bee population, and we are very willing to let them come out and use our fields. Plus they did all the work.”
In all Horth lined up a half dozen partners in this research, and in 2013 she and several graduate biology students set to work with a batch of mason bees purchased with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
They set up houses for the bees on one half of the farms, while other half used traditional honeybees. Then they measured the differences as the crops came in.
“We didn’t know if the bees would just fly away, or what,” she said. “It was very stressful in an exciting way.”
One worry, especially for pick-your-own farms, was appearance. The traditional pollination method produced better-looking berries, and Horth wasn’t sure if the mason bees would do the same. As Horth and her students started measuring and watching the mason bee plants grow, they saw the big, red, round berries.
“It was pretty amazing,” she said. “I dreamed this up in my head and it worked.”
Horth hopes to receive an additional grant and tinker with the formula – more bees released at staggered times, for instance – to see if that does more.
“Hopefully, we will leave these farmers with sustainable communities of mason bees and improved crops, and then my dream is for it to spread beyond that,” she said. “Hopefully, we can expand and help more farmers with different crops. Mason bees are found all over the country, and maybe they could do the same thing for blueberries or blackberries. We’re not harming the bees, we’re helping the farmers and making better crops. It’s win, win, win.”