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Pollinator Project at the Morris Soils lab could address bee forage needs

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 09/11/2013 10:27 AM

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MORRIS, Minn. — Beekeepers Dan Whitney and Al Braaten are interested in the buzz surrounding a pollinator project at the USDA-ARS North Central Soil Conservation Lab in Morris.

Information from the project, one of several research efforts featured during the lab's recent field day, is needed more than ever, they said.

Whitney, president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association, raises bees near Ottertail and takes his hives to Texas over the winter to pollinate crops. The bees from his 1,200 hives weaken while in Minnesota but fatten up in Texas. He has lost between 25 percent to 30 percent of hives from spring to fall over the past decade.

Braaten, a Glenwood-area beekeeper, once had 3,000 hives. Now it's a challenge to keep his numbers at 2,000.

"You find yourself teetering on the edge of, 'Do I keep doing this or do I go out,'" he said.

Braaten takes his bees to California.

Pesticides may be one source of the problem. A lack of crop diversity — namely a lack of flowering crops —could be another.

Carrie Eberle and Kristine Nemec are working on their post doctorates and are involved in the research. Eberle is evaluating the production potential of specialty oilseeds and their value as forage crops for pollinators and beneficial insects.

"This is really important to everyone, because 75 percent of the food we eat needs to be pollinated," she said.

One-third of the nation's honeybee population can be found in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota during the summer.

The pollinator project will study flowering crops. Flowering crops — pennycress, winter camelina and canola — will be fall-planted. The spring-planted crops include crambe, starflower or borage, echium, calendula and cuphea.

Researchers study how bees react to the flowering crops.

Nemec is focused on the pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.

She is a post-doctorate research entomologist with the USDA-ARS lab in Brookings, S.D.

Braaten placed four hives at the Soils Lab's Swan Lake Research farm. Once a week, pollen traps are placed at the entrance of each hive. The traps capture pollen that falls from the bees. The pollen can show researchers where the bees are going to get the honey.

"Most of the problem for the bees is a lack of forage," Whitney said. "We have viruses and parasites that affect the bees that aren't going away, but we have tools for that."

The pollinator forage research will include developing management protocols that extend flowering times, especially in spring and fall, and establish a rotational compatibility of spring-summer and fall-flowering oilseed crops with standard biofuel crops including corn, soybean and switchgrass.

In order to grow those crops, the soil must have the nutrients and organic matter for optimum plant health. A section on cover crops, with Soils Lab technician Chad Rollofson and Madison organic farmer Carmen Fernholz addressed research in improving soil health.

Swan Lake Farm researchers planted cover crops of daikon radish or annual ryegrass and have found that corn, grown after the cover crop, yields better.

Fernholz operates a 400-plus organic cash grain and forage farm and works half-time with the University of Minnesota as an organic research coordinator. He oversees many of the organic research plots at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center near Lamberton and has replicated plots on his farm.

He's worked on cover crops for 20 years and last week planned to seed them in a unique way. He was working with his custom manure applicator to plant a nine-species "cocktail mix" of cover crops through the slurry spreader. He planned to knife in the manure and cover crop seed mix.

The slurry spreader has an agitator that keeps seeds mixed, he said.

The Soils Lab is also known for its work in oilseed crop research including work to use the oils for jet fuel and cosmetics.

The lab is collaborating with other ARS and university researchers at nine field locations, representing six eco-regions across the northern and western U.S. to determine the best agronomically suited oilseed feedstock for making jet fuel.

The research is also looking at the economics of the crop from field-to-fuel. Farmer perceptions about the oilseeds and its place in their crop rotations is also being monitored.

Russ Gesch, a research plant physiologist at the Soils Lab, and David Archer, an ag economist at the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Lab in Mandan, N.D., described the project at the Soils Lab's field day.

The 18 oilseed varieties, representing six species, arel relatives of the brassicaceae or mustard family, Gesch said. Research is focused on those areas in the west, central and northern plains where small grains are grown. Researchers at the USDA-ARS labs and universities are monitoring the crops.

Archer is among the researchers looking at the economic viability of growing oilseed crops.

Farmers talked about wheat's yield benefits and its ability to scavenge nutrients.