Collecting Bees in Apple Orchard

Wild bees are hard at work in New York’s apple orchards. These busy volunteers could give growers an economic edge: when native bees are healthy and abundant, their pollination services can often replace managed honey bee colonies.  

Pollinator Website Links New York Bees and Apples

March 10, 2014

Collecting Bees in Apple Orchard

Wild bees are hard at work in New York’s apple orchards. These busy volunteers could give growers an economic edge: when native bees are healthy and abundant, their pollination services can often replace managed honey bee colonies. Cornell bee experts and apple growers in New York State and beyond are joining forces in a new citizen science project to survey and monitor bee biodiversity for a more cost-effective, sustainable apple harvest.

ACSF Faculty Fellow Bryan Danforth (ENT) and his research team launched the Northeast Pollinator Partnership in February. Thirty growers have already signed on. The project’s website is getting the word out to more orchard managers, laying the groundwork for Danforth’s broader effort to promote wild bees as apple pollinators and collect data on environmental factors that threaten them and the ecosystem services they provide. Interest in wild bees has stepped up in recent years as managed honey bee populations, used by commercial growers to pollinate crops and often trucked long distances, have suffered from colony collapse disorder and other threats, driving up costs.

“The website is the first step in a program to enlist apple growers to survey the bee fauna at their orchards in exchange for recommendations about how best to manage their pollination needs,” Danforth said. “Future funding will allow us to develop the website for data entry, as well as cell phone apps for data collection.”

This citizen science initiative engages community members as research partners, jumping off from research supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that documented wild bees’ role as apple pollinators, as well as an ACSF Academic Venture Fund study on the impact of pesticides and pathogens on wild bee health. The Northeast Pollinator Partnership ultimately aims to share the collected data with the public and K–12 classrooms. “Bryan Danforth’s work captures what the Atkinson Center is all about,” said ACSF faculty director Alex Travis. “It is biodiversity conservation, sustainable agriculture, One Health, ecosystem services, and economics, all rolled up into one.”

Danforth and his team have detected more than 100 species of native bees in commercial apple orchards in central New York—but these hardy locals are susceptible to some of the same problems that plague European honey bees. “A recent report in Nature showed that honey bee pathogens are actually impacting native bee populations,” Danforth explained. “We are trying to get apple growers to stop using honey bees when they are not needed. The shift to wild pollinators will lead to more sustainable land management, reduced pesticide use, and improved safety for orchard workers. Biodiversity is better for everyone.”