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Declining bee population attracts research at NMSU?s Los Lunas Ag Center

Two researchers at New Mexico State University?s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas have been working together on the New Mexico Pollinator Project, which aims to test native and non-native plants for their ability to attract and retain pollinators at a time when some pollinator populations are under threat.

Tessa Grasswitz, entomologist, and David R. Dreesen, agronomist and horticulturist, both researchers at NMSU?s Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center and the USDA-NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center, work together on the New Mexico Pollinator Project, which aims to conserve bees in New Mexico and educate people about the benefits of pollinators. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

The pollinator project began in 2010 as a collaborative effort between NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Natural Resources Conservation Services Los Lunas Plant Materials Program in response to concerns over what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder ? a problem that threatens honeybee populations, resulting in economic implications for commercial beekeeping and pollination operations across the nation.

According to the USDA?s statistics, the commercial honeybee population has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today. In the U.S., ?bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year,? as stated on the USDA?s website. The problems caused by CCD are so drastic that last month the USDA allocated $8 million to help farmers in five states improve habitat for honeybees.

USDA is researching pathogens, pesticides, parasites and other environmental stressors that contribute to CCD.

Recent efforts to help the deteriorating populations of pollinators in the country include the memorandum from President Barack Obama on June 20 to establish the Pollinator Task Force, which will develop a strategy to study the health of pollinators, develop affordable and appropriate seed mixes and establish a public education plan, among other steps, to help in the restoration of pollinators.

?Colony Collapse Disorder is specific to domesticated honeybees, and is especially important in states such as California, which have vast acreages of almond trees and other crops that require insect pollination,? said Tessa Grasswitz, entomologist working on the pollinator project at NMSU?s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. ?In other parts of the country where Colony Collapse Disorder has really affected the honeybees and where they have done the research, they?ve found that in all cases the native bees can pick up the slack as far as plant pollination as long as there is habitat for them once the crops have finished blooming.?

The two Los Lunas-based researchers recognize the seriousness of this issue and its implications for agricultural industries in New Mexico, where important crops such as chile and various fruits might be affected by the lack of pollinators.
To help farmers and others interested in creating a more stable habitat for the state?s pollinators, they have published a list of both native and non-native plants that provide pollen and nectar for native bees, honeybees and other beneficial insects such as predatory and parasitic wasps.

Another objective of the pollinator project is to educate people about the importance of pollinators as well as the plant species that attract and help them thrive in New Mexico?s climate.

?I have realized the great diversity of native bees we have here, and how that they can be as important as honeybees for the pollination of certain crops and native plants,? said David R. Dreesen, agronomist and horticulturist for USDA?s Natural Resources Conservation Service at the USDA-NRCS Los Lunas Plant Materials Center, located at the same facility as NMSU?s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

Dreesen and Grasswitz have evaluated over 500 species of plants, including annuals, herbaceous, perennials and woody shrubs, and encourage people to plant native, recommended species to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.

?We have tried a wide diversity of plant species starting from the Southwest, but also from the Pacific Northwest and California, and it is surprising how many of them will do well in our climate and soils,? Dreesen said.

Grasswitz added that pollinator habitat ?needs to provide blooming plants from early spring into summer and on into autumn.?

In addition to the plantings at Los Lunas, in 2010, limited plantings were installed at a rural high school at Reserve, New Mexico, and at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area near Belen, New Mexico. A grant obtained in 2011 allowed three more pollinator plantings to be installed at NMSU?s Farmington and Tucumcari agricultural science centers, as well as at a demonstration farm for beginning farmers in Chaparral, New Mexico.

?I have been surprised at the extent to which bees will make use of these kinds of plantings, even in a relatively short time frame,? said Grasswitz. ?Year on year, we have seen an increase in the diversity of pollinators at our plot here in Los Lunas, although this could be partly due to the lack of wildflowers in the surrounding rangelands because of the drought.?

Grasswitz added that it is important to remember that bees are part of the larger food chain and are needed for a healthy environment.

?Their decline can have major effects not only on agriculture, but also on natural habitats,? she said.