Local growers in Flathead share native pollinator experiences
By: Vince Devlin, The Missoulian August 30, 2011
YELLOW BAY – Sharon Myers is a pretty tiny speck in the food chain.
She rented four commercial beehives this year, for $154, to make sure her three-acre cherry orchard on Flathead Lake’s east shore was pollinated, and she’ll keep paying for the service in the future.
“It’s one way to assure your crop is pollinated,” she explained.
But she was one of several cherry growers who came here to learn more about native pollinators, and how to attract them.
Tuesday’s workshop, sponsored by the National Association of State Conservation Agencies and the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project, was the fourth and final one to be held across the nation this year – but the first to invite local growers.
All the workshops have been used to reach out to officials with government agencies that deal with agriculture in order that they might spread the word about the benefits to agriculture of attracting native pollinators.
Ray Beck, regional director of the National Association of State Conservation Agencies, decided the Montana workshop would be a good opportunity to take the message directly to a few growers as well.
It’s an important one, he believes.
Approximately 30 percent of the food and fiber crops grown throughout the world depend on pollinators to reproduce. In the United States, more than 100 crop plants worth $20 billion annually – from apples and pears to soybeans and sunflowers – are pollinated by insects and animals.
And pollinator populations are in dramatic decline, for reasons scientists haven’t pinpointed, but may include disease, pests, pesticides, malnutrition and migratory beekeeping.
Take away the birds and the bees and the insects that pollinate the flowers and the trees, and you take away one out of every three mouthfuls of food and drink you swallow.
It’s a statistic that, on the surface, seemed excessive, even to Mace Vaughn.
He’s the pollinator program director for the Xerces Society and joint pollinator conservation specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
He was also one of the speakers at the workshop held at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.
“When you think about it, crops like alfalfa that are used to feed dairy cows, beef cows and sheep, have to be pollinated, too,” Vaughn said, “so the effect can spread across a wide spectrum of foods.”
“We wouldn’t die” without pollinators,” he went on. “We’d just lose fruits and vegetables. Grains would be OK. We’d be eating a lot of gruel, and missing a lot of vitamins.”
Much of agriculture depends on managed honey bees, which have suffered a 50 percent decline in their population.
Feral honey bee colonies have all but been wiped off the map.
“Since the mid-1990s to 2006 managed honey bees had annual losses of 15 to 22 percent,” Vaughn said.
Then, colony collapse disorder hit as well, and 25 percent of beekeepers lost nearly half their hives, ratcheting up the declines to levels, Vaughn said, “it’s starting to get hard to recover from.”
With it came steep price increases for bringing in beehives for agricultural pollination. In California, Vaughn said, the price shot from $35 to $45 per hive, to $150 to $180.
“In the pollination-for-hire business, they were basically throwing bees away,” he said.
No one is saying that putting in plants that attract native pollinators to gardens, farms, ranches and orchards will solve the problem.
“You can’t replace managed bees with native pollinators,” Beck said, “but you can provide significant insurance that you’ll have better pollination on your crop.”
Once there for the native plants, the native bees and other insects gravitate into the cherry trees.
According to Vaughn, canola growers in Alberta, Canada, who returned 30 percent of their fields to native vegetation that could attract native pollinators made more money than those who left their fields in 100-percent canola production. In California, he said, watermelon growers who put 30 percent of their fields back into natural habitat were 100-percent pollinated by native bees, and did not have to hire managed bees.
The thought of taking 30 percent of your land out of production made Mike Omeg, a fifth-generation cherry grower from The Dalles, Ore., a tad nervous.
And Omeg – whose 400-acre Oregon orchard is huge by most Flathead orchard standards – was at the workshop to tell local growers how strongly he believes in the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project.
“I’m a conventional grower, I’m not organic,” he told the 50 or so people attending the workshop, “but I believe in conservation and stewardship of the land.”
That led him, when he took over management of the orchard from his parents in 2005, to decide to put in certain plants as a way to manage pests.
“I did it all wrong,” he admitted, “but I saw a lot of native pollinator activity in the process. I got more cherries. It was making me money.”
Omeg said if nothing else, the bottom line ought to be enough reason to consider planting things that attract native pollinators.
“We have 23 families who rely on our farm for income,” Omeg said. “We didn’t do it because it’s fun. It’s what was in the best interest of putting food on the tables of those 23 families.”
Omeg had some practical tips for local growers.
• Start small, and plant in a place where you’ll keep an eye on things.
“Don’t start with two acres – there’s a steep learning curve involved,” Omeg said. “And don’t put it way off in a corner of an orchard you don’t get to on a regular basis. Observe what works, and be open to change.”
• Look to plant in areas that don’t eat into your crop.
“We plant roadsides,” he said, “because they’re easy to manage and they take nothing out of production. I had a gravel bank next to my shop that we used to spray for weeds that I planted it in spearmint. The utility company made us take out a row of cherry trees so they could move their lines from one side of the road to the other – I wasn’t real happy about that – but I planted native pollinator attractors there.”
• Do proper site preparation, including cultivation and irrigation, and choose the proper plants. Omeg recommends tall, hardy, perennial, long-blooming ones that are readily available and cheap.
“So you’re not spending $15 instead of $1.50,” he said.
He also recommends potted plants vs. seeds – “More expensive up front,” he says, “but less in the long run.”
Local nurseries, conservation districts and the Xerces Society – www.xerces.org – are good sources for what plants can work best.