Fruit growers in Michigan have had an extremely difficult year. A warmer than average winter, followed by an unusually hot March that caused fruit trees to burst into bloom too early, was followed by a series of cold events that froze most of those blooms, destroying or severely reducing the expected bounty of cherries, apples, and peaches throughout the state. Other fruit crops, vegetables, and field crops not under irrigation, suffered from intense heat and drought across the Midwest during the summer. If you've been wondering why produce has gone up in price at your local farmers market, the freakish weather has virtually everything to do with it. This YouTube video does a nice job of explaining what happened and why prices for fresh fruit may have gone up at your local farmers market this year. Please continue to support local farmers! Remember: No Farms = No Food!
On August 23, 2012, researchers from MSU and Washington State University working on a project funded by the USDA met to discuss Year 1 progress and plans for Year 2 and to see the Washington Team's prototype of the Solid Set Canopy Delivery system at the Sunrise Research Farm in Wenatchee, WA. The goal is for the system to be used instead of tractor-driven sprayers to apply water containing various compounds such as foliar fertilizers, growth regulators, insect pheromones, insecticides, fungicides, and biopesticides used in apple production, via micro-sprinklers mounted on the trellis system.
Following is a slide show of pictures I took on a recent tour of southwest Michigan on August 15, 2012.
To help celebrate National Pollinator week, MSU’s Department of Entomology and the Horticultural Demonstration Gardens are hosting Bee-palooza 2012 on Saturday, June 23 from 1-4pm at the MSU Horticultural Demonstration Gardens. Check out event details here!
This event is designed for all who are interested in learning more about pollinators and what we can do to help them. Throughout the afternoon there will be a series of short educational demonstration sessions held every half hour starting at 1pm in various parts of the garden (pick up a map at the info booth at the entrance). Attendees will learn about some of the many different species of native bees that live in Michigan, the important role of bees in food production, how to design your garden to attract and support pollinators, and how to build a native bee hotel.
Especially for kids, a short self-guided pollinator scavenger hunt will be available between 1 and 4pm (pick up your first clue at the info booth to the gardens).
This event is weather-dependent and will be cancelled in the event of rain.
UPDATE (6/24/2012): Bee-Palooza 2012 was a success! The Lansing State Journal wrote a brief article about it here. Pictures from the event may be found on the event Facebook page here. If you missed it this time, we'll do it again next year!
This post is dedicated to bee taxonomists and to a newly discovered bee. If you don't know what a bee taxonomist is, it is someone who can distinguish among all the different kinds of bees out there. How many bees are out there? Most people can name at least two kinds of bees - honey bees and bumble bees - but these are only the "common" names for two groups of species. The number of species that those two common names contain is only a fraction of the more than 20,000 species that have been described worldwide. Some examples of other common names for groups of bee species are: digger bees, long-horned bees, mason bees, leaf-cutter bees, carpenter bees, and even sweat bees (more on that in a minute). Here in Michigan we can claim nearly 400 different bee species, with 21 species of bumble bees alone!
What is remarkable about bees is that they seem to be everywhere that people are. Today in the New York Times, a report has just come out that a new bee species has been discovered in New York City by two taxonomists: John Ascher (pictured left) at the American Museum of Natural History (who collected the bee) and Jason Gibbs at Cornell University (who is a specialist on the kind of bee that John collected and who helped determine that it isn't something that had been seen before). They used a DNA test to confirm that it is in fact a new species and then they charmingly named it: Lasioglossum gotham.
It is a kind of sweat bee, so-called because they will use humans as their personal salt-lick when we sweat. The picture above makes the bee appear to be huge, but in reality it is probably about 3/8ths of an inch in length, or about half the size of a honey bee. Sweat bees are solitary bees, with every female fending for herself in terms of nest building and foraging to provide food for offspring. They dig tunnel-like nests in soil, but because they are solitary bees (that is, they do not form colonies) these are not aggressive bees, and they have a very mild sting.
Why should we care that there are so many different kinds of bees? In other words, why do we need taxonomists? Bee diversity has been shown to be correlated with flowering plant diversity and can be used as an indicator of how suitable a particular area is for sustaining seed and fruit-bearing plants that are insect-pollinated (without the addition of a managed pollinator like honey bees). If you love your morning cup of coffee, if you love fresh strawberries on your waffles, if you enjoy the comfort of a cotton shirt, if you love apple or cherry pie, if you love cheese and cream from animals that forage on pastureland containing alfalfa, then bee diversity should be very important to you. All of these "other bees", these non-honey-bees, are insurance against the potential loss of honey bees in terms of pollination. Some of these "other bees" are actually better pollinators of particular crops (e.g. blueberries, tomatoes, squash) or help honey bees increase their pollination efficiency (e.g. sunflowers).
When you sip your coffee and eat your fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds today, think about all of the tiny helpers that brought you these pleasures in life - thank them and the taxonomists for continuing to discover more of them.
This is actually the third iteration of a blog about pollinators and pollinator-related topics that I began very meagerly in June 2010. I won't even bother to link to those old posts here because I mean to start fresh with this new format. My goal is to make one new post each week. Every third week will highlight a particular pollinator species or guild of pollinators. The other weeks will be devoted to random and/or timely stories on pollinator-related topics.
A honey bee on a cherry blossom.
This week's post is devoted to the insanely warm early spring we are having here in Michigan (and across the U.S.) and some of the expected consequences in terms of pollination. I got a call from a TV station in Grand Rapids earlier this week asking me whether I thought there was some kind of crisis due to the early spring. The answer is, yes, but not because there aren't enough bees in the U.S. to do the job - they just might not get here in time.
The bees we're talking about here are honey bees (a.k.a. Apis mellifera). Honey bees are by far the most important crop pollinator here and in many parts of the world. They are not native to North America, but over the last 400+ years, we have come to rely on them heavily for pollination of many fruit, nut, and vegetable crops grown across the U.S.
Annually, millions of bees are sent on an artificial migration route (artificial because humans put them on trucks and move them wherever they are needed) to pollinate crops such as almonds (in California), apples and cherries (in the Pacific Northwest, and in the Great Lakes region), blueberries (in the southeast, in Michigan, and in Maine), and vegetables (in California, Florida and all up the mid-Atlantic states and the Great Lakes region).
Michigan growers of cherries, apples, blueberries and other early spring-blooming crops, rely on thousands of hives being trucked up from Florida or over from California after they have finished pollinating crops there. This recent article published on the MSU Extension News website outlines the problems that an early spring can cause for growers relying on honey bees.
Solitary bee nesting boxes at MSU.
But what about all of the more than 400 native bee species that have been recorded in Michigan? What does an early spring do to them? Most of these bees respond to the same kinds of environmental cues that plants do in terms of when they emerge - for instance, the earliest of the solitary stem nesting species that established themselves in the MSU Pollinator Garden are already busy building new nests.
All of this activity is nearly 3 weeks ahead of the average. I suspect that if we do have a frost, as most of the fruit growers are expecting with some resignation, the native bees will survive the freeze, but may have trouble finding food for however long it takes for new flowers to open on plants that were not damaged by the freeze.
At least we aren't having a problem with there not being enough native bees due to the weather. They are here and are already getting busy. Here's hoping they continue to find enough food if it does freeze out there!