POLLINATION GOES HIGH TECH
TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THE INTERNET OF THINGS, SENSORS, AND NEW POLLINATION PRESERVATION METHODS NOW ARE HELPING ENSURE THE PROCESS OF POLLINATION.
A delicate golden granule buffeted by wind or deposited via insects is the precursor to any crop.
For some crops, like corn, optimal pollination depends on the right timing, wind, and favorable environmental conditions, which don’t always exist. Further, in hybrid seed corn production, the usual row planting pattern leaves many female plants with insufficient pollen from the males.
While pollinators such as bees do not pollinate corn, rice, or wheat, working with nature by promoting a healthy ecosystem through cover crops, prairie strips, pollinator habitats, and more benefits all.
Technologies like the internet of things, sensors, and new pollination preservation methods now are helping ensure the process of pollination.
THREATS TO THE POLLINATION CYCLE
“In agriculture, there are two main issues that are threats to pollinators,” says Randall Cass, Extension entomologist at Iowa State University. “One is pesticide use, and the other one is habitat loss.”
To reverse the loss of habitat in agriculture landscapes, farmers can enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which can help pay for the transfer of unproductive cropland to native prairie habitat.
Another middle ground practice (and is available under CRP) that incorporates habitat within farmland is prairie strips, or land seeded with diverse native prairie plants.
“Not only do prairie strips reduce some of the negative impacts of agriculture like runoff or erosion, but they also create habitat for wildlife, including bees,” Cass explains. “Being able to maintain the natural landscape, support surrounding wildlife, and create these benefits to the ag system is incredible.”
As for the threats to the environment via pesticide applications, smart use of agrochemicals is key.
“Another tool to use is an integrated pest management approach,” Cass says. “Only use insecticides when it’s absolutely necessary, select resistant seed varieties, and monitor your pests until they reach a specific economic threshold before you decide
Commercial beekeepers are at the mercy of factors like the varroa mite, a deadly parasite that can wipe out entire hives, or pesticide and insecticide drift from crop production.
According to fifth-generation beekeeper Ryan Luellen, communication is key between growers and beekeepers. “I know many beekeepers who are on the phone and texting with their local growers, which is a great level of communication. We just want to strengthen that relationship, especially in pollination services.”
In addition to advocating for awareness and communication, the Honeybee Health Coalition lists best management practices for corn and soybean farmers:
- Follow label instructions every time a pesticide is used. Many pesticide labels have advisory environmental hazard statements or compulsory directions for use specific to honeybee and pollinator protection.
- Identify hive locations and inform potentially affected beekeepers of crop management plans. Resources to facilitate this communication include the website FieldWatch (fieldwatch.com), which includes tools that allow growers and pesticide applicators to view the locations of registered beehives (beecheck.org) and sensitive crops (driftwatch.org).
- Take steps to reduce or avoid pesticide drift, especially onto areas with flowering vegetation and actively foraging pollinators. Check the weather forecast to avoid making applications during conditions (such as high winds and temperature inversions) that make pesticide drift more likely.
- Where available, refer to your state-specific managed pollinator protection plan, or MP3, which can be found online.
- Use insecticides and other pesticides judiciously, based on locally established recommendations and pest pressure as part of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. IPM can incorporate preventive as well as reactive control measures, but the use of a control tactic should be informed by an assessment of the actual risk of pest damage, including monitoring of fields for pest presence and density. Specific factors to consider before determining if a pesticide application is appropriate include economic thresholds, field history of pest pressure, cultural practices that might influence pest potential, and environmental conditions.
- Where effective and economical, choose insecticides and other pesticides that selectively target the pest of concern, have residues that remain toxic to bees for shorter durations, or have favorable toxicity profiles related to bees and other pollinators. Check the pesticide label for environmental hazard statements, particularly those related to honeybees and other pollinators.
- Delay pesticide applications until honeybees and other pollinators cease foraging for the day (typically 6 to 7 p.m. during the summer) to reduce the risk of exposure. This is especially helpful during bloom and should be considered if a pesticide being used includes a bee hazard warning in the environmental hazards statement of the label.
SOYBEAN FIELDS AS HABITAT FOR POLLINATORS
Pollinator health is under continual research as new conservation practices are established and implemented on farms.
At Iowa State University, Cass and a research team have compiled data for more than three years on Iowa soybean fields, studying them as nectar resources for bees.
“The team noticed that the bees put on mass when soybeans were blooming,” Cass explains. “In a poor landscape where there aren’t many plants flowering, at least when soybeans bloom, there is a good nectar resource for the bees.”
However, when the soybeans are done flowering, the bees eat all of their nectar stores before winter starts. Without enough nectar in storage, those bees don’t survive the winter months.
For this reason, the team moved the hives from the soybean fields to a prairie site with floral resources throughout the late summer.
“In this research study, we saw the hives in prairies that had more access to late-season forage availability receive a buffer and go into winter with more resources than the hives that stayed near the soybeans,” Cass says.
With an understanding of ecosystem diversity, Wayne Fredericks, who farms near Osage, Iowa, has established seven different pollinator habitats across his corn and soybean operation.
The decision to place those habitats started with a profitability analysis of his farm.
“We saw the opportunity to address some acres that were less profitable and less useful for different reasons,” Fredericks says.
Since 2014, Fredericks has strategically planted pollinator habitats across his acres in areas with poor soil and water quality issues, where acres were difficult to farm due to their orientation, along windbreaks and a buffer strip, close to barns, and beside a wood-chip bioreactor.
These actions are rooted in Fredericks’ passion for conservation and advocacy for increased pollinator habitat on farms, but also in conjunction with the farm’s long-term financial wellness and land stewardship.
Integrated pest management practices, adding habitat, and advocating for pollinator health in the fields are just a few of the practical strategies farmers can implement. Now, tech companies are developing advanced solutions to benefit farmers on their operations.
Bee Vectoring Technologies (BVT), based in Ontario, Canada, has developed technology that harnesses the natural process of pollination by bees.
BVT dispensers are placed in the lids of hives and when bumblebees or honeybees leave to visit flowers, they catch and carry spores of beneficial microbes on their legs and lower abdomens, which deliver biologicals to crops.
This process cuts out water from spray applications, helps reduce residues and input costs, and increases yields due to better disease control, precision pollination, and biostimulants in the microbes that improve plant vigor.
Ashish Malik, CEO of BVT, says the technology may develop to be applied as a foliar product and seed treatment.
“We’re working with partners on corn and soybean treatments, so there is an opportunity in broadacre crops, not just flowering crops,” Malik says.
For commodity crops like corn, growing drought-resistant or higher protein crops starts with breeding to produce corn seed with those characteristics. The ability to manage pollination at the seed level is a critical factor to produce grain.
“To meet current consumer demand, farmers want greater value and benefits from the crops they grow,” explains Todd Krone, chief executive officer for PowerPollen, an Iowa start-up offering an on-demand pollen collection solution.
PowerPollen has created a technology that enables the collection, storage, and application of corn pollen on commercial seed fields.
“While pollination may not be top of mind for many of us, it is one of the first critical steps for ensuring the quality and availability of food on our plates,” Krone says.
Controlled pollination results in more consistent seed production, allowing seed companies to reduce overproduction, a common precautionary practice.
“This technology makes pollination on-demand, meaning fewer male plants are needed and a greater percentage of female plants receive sufficient pollen,” Krone says. “Historically, growers plant more males because most wind-applied pollen simply blows away. With PowerPollen’s technology, growers can replace the extra males with females.”
More yield per female multiplied by more females per acre means less land is needed to get the same output.
As adverse weather conditions and climate changes continue to increase and threaten the stability of processes on the farm, PowerPollen is one solution that can help fields recover from the effects of drought if male and female plants mature at different rates. By collecting pollen from the male and preserving it until the female is ready, PowerPollen can pollinate on-demand and fill the ears.
With increased flexibility, on-demand pollination technology can help reduce risk for corn growers and increase yield by 20% or more over reliance on nature.
There are many strategies to employ to create a more diverse ecosystem in which all plants and pollinators can thrive. While grains of pollen seem dependent upon Mother Nature’s whims, decisions made in the fields and advances in technology can better ensure pollination success in crop production.