Helping native bees
Like many other science-related programs, KQED TV's Quest has done a segment on bees this year. Quest's segment focuses on the work of two University of California researchers, one who is trying improve honeybee genetics through selective breeding and another who specializes in California's native bees. You can watch the 10-minute segment below or in a larger window at Quest's site.
The breeding work is interesting, but what caught my attention was the work on improving native bees' habitat. Native bees already contribute greatly to pollination in agricultural fields (as detailed in this SF Chronicle article), especially in fields that are close to natural habitat. It turns out that native bees also increase the productivity of non-native honeybees. The presence of competitors for nectar seems to cause all types of bees to visit more flowers. Thus, by having natural habitat buffers around a farm field, the chance of pollination is greatly improved.
Monoculture vs. diversity
Watching the segment about native bees, I was reminded of what I saw on the farm tour that I wrote about last week. After visiting Far West Fungi, we stopped at Yerena Farm near Moss Landing, which grows berries and other produce for sale to restaurants and at farmers markets (including San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Market).
As our tour bus made its way through the Moss Landing region, we passed numerous industrial fields, each one a multi-acre monoculture (this Google satellite image shows what it looks like from above). The edges of the farms generally had unmanaged areas, but the plants in these areas were often cut down to the ground. The intention might be to keep away pests, but is it possible that they are doing as more harm by knocking out beneficial insects and pollinators?
The 17-acre, certified organic Yerena farm, on the other hand, is a jumble of berries, squash, beans, herbs and even strips of inedible flowering plants. The photo above shows one of these flowering strips next to rows of strawberries; the photo to the left shows a large epazote plant intermingled with the blackberries (epazote is a distinctively-flavored herb used in Mexican cooking). During the tour of the farm, Mr. Yerena displayed an impressive sense of experimentation and a desire to grow things that will make his customers happy (what a concept!... trying to grow what your customers want, instead of trying to force something unwanted down their throats, like transgenic meat). For example, he grows corn not for the ears, but for their leaves — so that he can offer fresh, organic tamale wrappers for Day of the Dead observances in October. He is also experimenting with various vegetables that are uncommon in the U.S..
One of the frequent knocks of farm policy is that "the government pays farmers not to farm." Paying a farmer not to farm sounds like a crazy idea, but as the bee segment and Yerena's farm indicate, it can make sense when the farmer is planting vegetation that will attract beneficial insects. Over the last few decades, the primary approach has been to wipe the ground clean, plant only food crops, and then truck in hundreds of bee hives for pollination. With European honeybees facing an uncertain future, it is time for a new effort to bolster the population of native pollinators by restoring natural habitat around farmland. The conservation programs funded by Food and Farm Bill are one way to help farmers do this.