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Ruth Correll: Bees, beneficials important to agriculture

Ruth Corell • Updated Dec 19, 2017 at 10:45 PM

“Not all bugs are bad bugs.” A few years ago, we became aware that honeybees were dying at alarming rates. Large commercial beekeeping operations sustained crippling losses. Thousands of acres of pollinator-dependent crops were affected

Theories quickly arose as to why colonies were dying. In response, researchers collected samples and began investigations. For several years, miticides, habitat loss, along with other potential culprits, were investigated. The conclusion was “while there is no single explanation, the syndrome seems to be a combination of stresses on the bees.” 

One-third of the food we eat is made available by the hard work of bees, butterflies, ants, beetles, wasps, moths, hummingbirds, bats and other small animals as pollination vectors. About 1,000 agricultural plants grown for food, drink, fiber and medicinal use depend on physical pollination. Lots of our favorite fruits, nuts and vegetables would no longer be available if honeybees and other pollinators were to become extinct. Our landscapes and yards would also suffer since 75 percent of all flowering plants rely on pollinators for reproduction.

Along with pollinators, there are also other “beneficial” insects that are important. Beetles such as ladybugs, praying mantises, green and brown lacewings, parasitoid wasps and many spiders can consume or parasitize large amounts of agriculturally destructive species. 

What can we do to help protect these pollinators and beneficials? 

• Plant a wide variety of native flowering plants, shrubs and trees to provide habitat, as well as nectar and pollen for the pollinators. Plants such as hyssop, salvia, milkweed, coneflower, bee balm and sunflower are just a few excellent examples. Check with your local Extension office for a good list of native plants to benefit pollinators and beneficials. Check your gardening catalogs when making your planting selections next spring.  Look for “pollinator friendly” plants.

• Be careful in the selection and use of pesticides, which can bring harm not only to the bad bugs, but also the pollinators and beneficials. Before reaching for a can of pesticide, try non-chemical approaches first. 

• Make sure a pesticide is really needed and select the best pesticide by identifying the exact pest. Some plants can tolerate an amount of infestation or infection. This may be due in part to natural resistance and regenerative abilities of the particular plant species, as well as the environmental presence of beneficials preying on the destructives. If the pest populations never reach truly damaging levels, then insecticides are not necessary. Yet, there are clearly times when chemicals can serve as a last resort.

Timing is of the utmost importance when using pesticides where beneficials, including pollinators, reside. The best time to apply pesticides is in low-wind conditions and after the sun has set. Try not to contaminate the blooms. Instead of broadcasting a chemical across large areas, apply it directly to where the damage is happening as in spot applications.

• Choose pesticides that break down rapidly and are the least toxic. If possible use “safer” products such as insecticidal oils, soaps, and some pyrethrins. Bacillus thuringiensis is an excellent biological pesticide that controls caterpillars with little to no risk to beneficials.

• Be aware of the chemical formulation. Dusts such as Sevin and wettable powders can wreak havoc on beneficials, especially ones that rely on pollen as a food source. Bees, for instance, collect pollen and take it back to the nest to store and eventually feed to their young. Pollen is the protein source for brood development. If the bees come into contact with toxic dust or dried powder, it is collected as pollen, taken back to the nest and kills both adults and brood and saturates the wax comb to affect future generations and new colonies to come.

These simple tips can reduce the impact of environmental toxicity on pollinators and other beneficials in our backyards, gardens and farms, which will help us all in the short and long term. 

“Even though the bee is small, there she is on the flower, doing something of value. And the value she creates there contributes to a larger ecosystem of value, in that mountain meadow, in that range of mountains, in the world and even the universe. And can’t you just feel how happy she is?” said Jay Ebben with Painted Hive.  

My appreciation for information in this column goes to Jennifer Berry with the honeybee program at the University of Georgia. 

For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or acorrell@utk.edu.

 

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