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Regional research may help bee population

Across the U.S., honeybee colonies have been dying off dramatically, and the effects of colony collapse disorder may have major impacts on the food we eat. 

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“Every third mouthful of food we eat directly or indirectly depends on honeybee pollination,” said Steve Poppe, senior horticulture scientist at the West Central Research and Outreach Center.

Since the 1940s, the total number of managed honeybee colonies has decreased from 5 million to 2.5 million. Although scientists don’t know exactly why hives are dying off, theories include increased use of pesticides, parasites and environmental stressors like lack of adequate pollen and nectar for good bee nutrition.

To help find solutions to the nutrition problem, the WCROC has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service on a trial of native plants to see which mixes of grasses and flowers best support pollinator health.

The trial plots will be planted near the WCROC’s Horticulture Garden in an area designated for native bee research and education. The area has been bare for two years while staff worked to make sure all perennial weeds were eliminated before the trial starts.

Each mix will include a different percentage of grasses and forb species. All of the native mixes are made of plants readily available for purchase.

“Part of the effort here will be to record some data on the activity of pollinators within those treatments – How great is it? What is attracting these pollinators more?” Poppe said.

Prior studies have shown that native plants are four times more attractive to bees than exotic flowers. Colors that attract the most bees are blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. Common popular flowers include sunflowers, joe-pye weed, pussy willows, autumn joy sedum and blazing star, said Poppe.

The project will serve as a demonstration site and outdoor classroom for the community. Staff can share best methods for effective planting with individuals and landowners interested in using native plants on their property.

Researchers will collect data from the trial for the next five to seven years, likely starting in 2015. It can take a full growing season or more for some native plants to get established and start to produce flowers.