Several of Wisconsin’s top fruit and vegetable crops – including cranberries, cherries, apples and cucumbers – depend on more than just a farmer’s care. They need pollinators to produce fruit.
The Importance of Pollinators
“Wisconsin has a number of crops that are pollinator-dependent. Cranberries are huge. We produce over 60 percent of the U.S. crop, and that requires pollination to produce fruit,” says Hannah Gaines Day, an assistant scientist at the Gratton Lab in the entomology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gaines Day has been involved in research with insects, and specifically pollinators, since 2004, with a focus on bees in agricultural environments.
“I just love being on an ag landscape and working with farmers,” she says. “The research is really important and can have a huge impact on the industry. It really benefits the state economically.”
Gaines Day says that although pollinators also include insects such as butterflies, and even birds, bees are by far the most important.
“There are a couple of reasons for this,” she says. “First, bees are always actively collecting pollen, and their bodies are really built for it. Bees also have a behavior called floral constancy, which means they tend to visit the same type of flowers during a single foraging trip. For apple blossoms, for example, it’s important the bee is bringing the right type of pollen.”
In addition to managed honeybees, Wisconsin is home to nearly 500 species of wild bees. Wild bees and honeybees are both important for pollination; however, Gaines Day says that honeybees are essentially domesticated livestock, with beekeepers managing their needs. Wild bees are solitary and need undisturbed areas where they can nest.
Protecting Pollinator Health
In her research, Gaines Day has found that both farmers and consumers can take action to help pollinators first and foremost by planting flowers.
“That is my number one piece of advice,” she says. “Bees need food all the time, and flowers provide that.”
Also see: The Buzz About Wisconsin Pollinators
She adds that having undisturbed, semi-vegetated or woodland areas can benefit wild bees that nest in these areas. “I’ve found almost 200 species of bees in cranberry marshes, and these tend to increase when you have more woodland in the area.” She also says bees need protection from pesticides.
And while many have heard about the decline in bee health over the past decade or so, Gaines Day says that determining future bee health in Wisconsin is tricky. Wild bees are difficult to study, due to their solitary nature. Her ongoing research will continue to engage fruit and vegetable growers, together with beekeepers, to understand how working landscapes influence the health and effectiveness of wild and managed bees for crop pollination.