The hive is not the bee-all and end all in pollination

Pollination project finds providing habitat for pollinators will boost pollination rates

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Farmers are urged to provide a smorgasbord of flowering plants for pollinators as close to year round as they can.

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A range of Australia's most important agricultural crops are set to benefit from a project that looks at protecting pollinators, critical to yield in many plant species.

The Securing Pollination for more Productive Agriculture project will look to protect all the useful pollinators in the Australian eco-system.

While the automatic association is with honey bees, other species, such as native bees and insects also play an important role in pollinating crops in Australian agriculture.

Interestingly, it found different pollinators preferred different environments and also performed their pollination role differently according to seasonal conditions.

Cotton is just one of 35 pollination-dependent crops, with pollinators playing an unsung role in contributing to about $14 billion in the national economy.

Researchers from the project have advised farmers to create pollinator-friendly landscapes and consider how nearby vegetation can help attract and retain the important insects.

As part of the project nine species were studied, apple, avocado, blueberry, canola, lucerne, macadamia, mango, raspberry, and watermelon.

It was conducted by researchers from the University of Adelaide (UoA), Australian National University (ANU), University of New England (UNE) and University of Sydney (USYD).

Katja Hogendoorn, lead researcher at the University of Adelaide, said researchers found that native bees, feral honey bees and other insects all play a major role in crop pollination, but that their contribution varies by crop and year.

"Regardless of crops or region, researchers found that diversity in crop pollination depends on the presence of flowering plants and nesting opportunities in the landscape," Dr Hogendoorn said.

"In some respects, the pollinators respond differently to the landscape," she said.

"For example, most native crop pollinating bees benefit from patches of open soil, while feral honey bees rely on old Eucalyptus trees for nesting hollows.

"In less forested areas, the densities of feral honey bees are not high enough to provide all the pollination required. But all pollinators need food from the landscape when the crop is not in flower."

Farmers can help pollinators to provide these food sources when their crops are not flowering.

Dr Hogendoorn said some form of flowering plant should be available nearly year-round, in close proximity to the crop, to enhance the health and diversity of pollinators.

She said trends in nations such as the UK, where farmers are planting pollinator crops of wild flowers next to cash crops to boost pollination rates had merit, although any such program needed to be tailored to Australian conditions.

"Overseas, mixes of wild flowers are increasingly used in crop edges along road-sides to provide support for bees and other pollinators," she said.

"Our advice here is to plant a wide range of local, easy to grow native species.

"Planting designs can focus on understorey species, hedgerows or whole area plantings."

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