Pollination of crops can sometimes be a bit hit and miss, if left to happen naturally. However, where managed pollination with honey bees is practiced, pollination levels can be greatly improved. Therefore, the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation, supported by Bayer, is compiling comprehensive scientific data about the bee health situation in Central Chile and how this relates to the pollination of crops.
// The Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation and Bayer are cooperating in a large-scale study about bee health in Central Chile.
// The study is making a detailed investigation of the influence of factors, such as apiary management, pests and pesticides, on bee health.
// Chilean farmers grow diverse crops, from almonds to avocados, many of which depend on insect pollination.
// By analyzing the bee health situation, researchers can look at how this relates to the pollination of crops.
Chile is more than 4,000 kilometers long and the land ranges from sea level to a height of 6,000 meters. The western edge runs along the Pacific Ocean, the Andes Mountains tower from the east, in-between are the central valley plains. There are more than 2,000 volcanoes and the country has seen at least 48 eruptions in the past century.
Across Chile, the degree of pollination achieved can be as diverse as the climate and terrain. As the human population worldwide continues to grow, improving agricultural yields everywhere is essential to guarantee food security. In 2014, the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation began a study of pollination and sustainable agriculture with the ultimate goal of professionalizing pollination management in crops like avocados, almonds and cherries. “70 to 90 percent of Chile’s fruit production is pollinated with bees. They are a farmer’s ‘best workers’, responsible for year-round productivity,” says Marnix Doorn, the study’s project manager. In order to ensure the bees provide effective pollination services, they need to be kept healthy.
However, there is a lack of some scientific data about the health of the honey bee, a major pollinator in the country. “The study aims to get complete data, in order to generate a scientifically sound base for focused decision-making in how to create quality agriculture and beekeeping practices that will benefit both farmers and beekeepers,” states Doorn. He and his team want to understand the productivity differences of crops seen in Central Chile: “We want to know if some farms are productive and others, even ones nearby, are less so due to the influence of bee health on the level of pollination services provided. The project was created with the goal of accurately measuring bee health, so conclusions reached will have a scientific foundation.” As part of this overall study, Bayer is providing funding and research support for a detailed analysis of the influence of factors such as apiary management, pests and pesticides on bee health.
During the study, 70 apiaries are being monitored throughout the season. The Fraunhofer researchers are assessing beekeeping practices, colony strengths, pathogen levels in the hives and the amounts of pesticide residues found in bee bread of the colonies. At each of the 70 apiaries, three honey bee colonies were selected at random for detailed investigations. Beekeepers are being regularly interviewed to discuss the conditions of their hives, their own observations, and their apicultural practices. The colony strength is determined by estimating the number of bees per hive. The amount of honey, brood and pollen in each frame is also measured. This data creates numeric values that can be compared between apiaries.
Marnix Doorn’s team has already generated some initial results. In this first round of monitoring, general trends can be seen which are not yet fully conclusive, mainly related to apicultural and agricultural management practices: “For example, we see poor colony strengths due to malnutrition and lack of cleanliness,” says Doorn. The research team has also found reasons to be optimistic: Levels of Varroa infestation, for example, were considered acceptable for most apiaries in the area. And some of the apiaries being studied are extremely well-managed by knowledgeable beekeepers.
Marnix Doorn (left) and his team at Fraunhofer want to make a difference: By monitoring honey bee health in Central Chile, they want to obtain data that may help to improve pollination provided by bees and thus the productivity of crops.
Even so, as Doorn notes: “Although there is a high level of goodwill among the beekeepers, some are still lacking apicultural management skills.” After this first round of monitoring, their research already supports what has been noted in previous, short-term investigations. The Bayer-sponsored data feeds into the current, overall study of pollination and sustainable agriculture in Chile that shows there is a knowledge gap related to the link between good beekeeping practices and the pollination of crops. This is a crucial point, says Doorn: “This lack of skills does not contribute to the problem, it is the problem.” Another challenge for his team will be to transform scientific findings into concrete action.
“The big question that arises now is how to educate everyone on the correct practices.”
Strong apiaries require basic bee care: providing abundant, clean water, a varied and healthy diet, and fostering and maintaining the diversity of forage plants that bees need. At the same time, responsible farm management is essential. “If you know that your almonds depend almost 100 percent on insect pollination, your bees are one of the most important tools on the farm. It’s like knowing you need a combine harvester to reap your field but the harvester doesn’t work unless you look after it well,” says Doorn, adding, “Bees are the ‘combine harvesters’ of these farms. When they aren’t looked after, the farm is less productive.” He concludes that farmers need to understand that there are many ways they can help the bees to stay healthy.
The conditions of this study are specific to Chilean agricultural practices, its landscape and diverse crop cultures. With this detailed analysis, combined with professional educational outreach, the study is creating a map of bee health in Central Chile. For Doorn, there is a fundamental principle behind this study: “It is not just about making a company, industry or economy better. We need good science in order to assist good decision-making that can help to make agriculture even more sustainable and guarantee stable yields.”
This current, overarching study of pollination and sustainable agriculture in Chile shows that there is a knowledge gap related to the link between good beekeeping practices and the pollination of crops. The monitoring study by the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation, with the support of Bayer, is creating a paradigm for how to analyze bee health to optimize pollination, and thus agricultural yields, not just in Chile, but perhaps also on a broader geographical level.
Marnix Doorn, the study’s project manager, is originally from the Netherlands. In 2004, he came to Chile for business reasons; one of his projects led him to work with beekeepers, which was his introduction to the bee world. Doorn is currently the Head of the Agriculture Division of the Center for Systems Biotechnology at the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation.
“With its diverse landscape, Chile provides habitat for more than 400 different bee species.”
At Fraunhofer, we are increasingly involved in pollination studies, trying to understand the situation in Chile. Healthy bees are essential for an efficient pollination. Together with the colleagues at the Bayer Bee Care Center, we agreed on the following principal: Before we just start ‘doing things,’ let’s profoundly measure what is really going on with bee health in order to create a scientific basis for our ideas. There are lots of short-term data but we needed to scale it up before starting any decision-making and policy planning. You need long-term data, which has not been available so far.
The Chilean agricultural community and government are very open to learning. They are interested in getting the most from their land by ensuring the most appropriate agricultural and apicultural practices are implemented.
That we would have deeply-analyzed data that helps to achieve a higher quality of farm and beekeeping management, to help both practices work in harmony and to ensure better productivity of the crops. Then there will be a question of motivation: How do you make people change how they think and what they do regarding how to better integrate bee pollination and agriculture? But with sound science, I believe we can assist them and change might come along much faster.