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Bee research in Brazil

Boosting productivity through fruitful partnerships

Agriculture plays an important role in Brazil. The different biospheres and climates that characterize the country’s farming landscape provide a wealth of resources. Whilst the South has a moderate climate and produces most of the country’s grains and oilseeds, the Northeast experiences far less rainfall, yet still supports some essential crops for export such as cocoa, tropical fruits and the majority of melons, over 90 percent, produced in Brazil.

The melon crop is highly dependent on insects for pollination and bees are the main pollinators. Therefore, Bayer is collaborating with bee researchers and growers in this region to evaluate the health of honey bees used for managed pollination and look for ways to improve this with respect to increasing pollination effectiveness and ultimately improving crop yield. In two further separate collaboration projects, information is being collected with the aim to produce a pollen online catalog and a practical handbook on pollinators and crop pollination for farmers, beekeepers and other interested parties.


Boosting productivity through fruitful partnerships

AT A GLANCE

// Melons are an economically important crop in Brazil and the Northeast region is the hub for melon growing in the country.

// Melon production is highly dependent on insect pollination, mainly by bees, so researchers investigated if pollination is already fully efficient or if it could be improved upon.

// With many more Brazilian crops dependent on insect pollination, information is being collected in a separate collaboration project with the aim to produce a practical handbook on crop pollinators, to lead towards crop-specific, pollinator-friendly farming practices.

// Additionally, a pollen catalog is being prepared which identifies the floral resources, namely pollen and nectar, which are important for the diet of different bee species.

// These projects will provide practical, hands-on information for beekeepers, growers and other interested parties.


Melons are an economically important crop in Brazil with a large global market generating substantial export revenues. In 2014, for example, Brazilian farmers produced around 590,000 tons of melons.

“Melons are an extremely resilient crop,” says Professor Breno Magalhães Freitas, pollinator expert and agronomist at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) in Brazil. “They are grown mainly in the poorest region of the country where people do not have many job opportunities in the countryside and may go hungry or leave the area, if crops could not be grown.” The production is, however, only possible due to the use of high technology and advanced agronomic practices regarding soil preparation, seedling preparation, irrigation and pest and disease control.

Facts & Figures

Brazilian melons in numbers

Harvesting time: In 2014, Brazilian farmers produced around 590,000 tons of melons – 93 percent of them were harvested in the tropical northeastern regions. On average, each plant produces only one melon, resulting in an average yield of 25.3 tons per hectare. Only Spain and Guatemala export more melons globally than Brazil.

 

Professor Breno Magalhães Freitas

Professor Breno Magalhães Freitas, agronomist and pollinator scientist at the Federal University of Ceará in Brazil, analyzes why the productivity of melon plants in Brazilian agriculture can vary significantly.

Why melons need bees

Brazil’s most cultivated melons are varieties such as Yellow, Honeydew, Piel de Sapo (Santa Claus melon), Charentais, Cantaloupe and Galia. They each have their own characteristics and they differ in many ways. Professor Freitas wants to understand why the productivity of these melon plants also varies significantly. With this information, he aims to help farmers to stabilize and improve their harvested yields.

Melon Crops

Melon crops are pollinated by honey bees and other pollinators. Some varieties are totally dependent on insects to pollinate them.

Some melon varieties are totally dependent on insect pollination – primarily by bees.

To find answers, Freitas’ research has focused on looking at whether a difference in pollination efficiency could be an important underlying factor. “Melon crops are highly dependent on insects to pollinate their stigma, which is the part of the pistil catching the pollen,” he explains. “This is because melon pollen grains are sticky and too heavy to be transported by the wind.” Some melon varieties are totally dependent on insect pollination – primarily by honey bees, as these can be used for large-scale managed pollination, but stingless bees (Meliponini), carpenter bees (Xylocopa) and others can also help to pollinate the plants.

“Whereas European honey bee colonies have long been used for managed melon pollination around the world in Brazil, Africanized honey bees have more recently been used as well,” notes Freitas. The melon producing states of Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará introduced the use of Africanized honey bees for managed pollination in 2000, with the counties of Petrolina/ Juazeiro (Pernambuco/Bahia states) following in 2008.

A field study, supported by Bayer

A field study, supported by Bayer, monitored honey bee colonies on eight melon farms – a total area of 12,000 hectares – in northeastern Brazil. The aim was to find out if and how pollination services by honey bees and other pollinators could be improved.

Monitoring bee health and pollination services

To change this situation and fill in knowledge gaps, Bayer supported a collaborative study with the UFC. In 2016, bee researchers began monitoring a representative sample from around 24,000 honey bee colonies on eight melon farms – a total area of 12,000 hectares – in northeastern Brazil. This is a region characterized by large cultivated plots, dry conditions and with seemingly few other flowering plants in the proximity to the fields. A baseline survey was performed on colony health, apicultural and pollination practices and pollination efficacy for each participating agricultural operation. In addition, an analysis of foraging sources for bees in the vicinity of the melon-growing areas was undertaken. “Our main goal was to find out whether the melon crop in Brazil is ‘under-pollinated’, limiting fruit productivity. If so, we wanted to know why not all the melon flowers are being pollinated and how to increase the level of insect pollination,” explains Claudia Quaglierini, agronomist and Bee Care Manager at Bayer in Brazil.

The bee researchers took stock of the colony conditions and looked into the way the colonies were managed. Throughout the day, they monitored colony activity, including the honey bees’ visits to melon flowers and the number of visiting wild bees.

 
Claudia Quaglierini

Claudia Quaglierini Agronomist and Bee Care Manager at Bayer in Brazil
A field study, supported by Bayer, monitored honey bee colonies on eight melon farms – a total area of 12,000 hectares – in northeastern Brazil. The aim was to find out if and how pollination services by honey bees and other pollinators could be improved.

“Our main goal was to find out whether the melon crop in the study region is ‘under-pollinated,’ limiting fruit productivity. If so, we wanted to know why many of the melon flowers were not being pollinated and how to increase the level of insect pollination.”

Additionally, the experts analyzed environmental conditions such as the temperature and air humidity as well as the amount of nectar in melon blossoms. Fruit setting of the crops was also evaluated. “We realized that there really are pollination deficits in the areas that were being studied,” summarizes Quaglierini. Freitas adds: “In checking the state of the honey bee colonies, the bee researchers found that the main reason for this was that many colonies were weak and quite a number of hives were in bad condition.
This meant there was frequent robbery between colonies, and colonies were absconding (the whole colony abandoning the hive to look for a new home), due to predator and pest pressure, suboptimal positioning of the hives (lack of shade, leading to high temperatures in the hive, and hive positions that increased the risk of insecticide exposure), for instance. The colonies used were basically in such a poor condition that it was jeopardizing their effectiveness as melon pollinators.”

From the observations around flower visits it became apparent that the melon crop was in competition for pollinators with wild plants, especially Piptadenia moniliformis, known as ‘Angico de Bezerro’ or ‘Catanduva’.


 

Pollinator-plant relations made simple

In addition to the melon project in Brazil, information is being collected and made accessible to interested stakeholders in two further collaborations. With many more Brazilian crops dependent on insect pollination, one project aims to produce a practical handbook on the pollinators of Brazilian crops. The other project gathers data to produce a pollen catalog which identifies the floral resources, especially the pollen of the relevant plants, which are important for the bees’ diet. It is hoped these will aid beekeepers, growers and other interested parties. For Bayer, generating data and sharing knowledge is paramount for enhancing bee research and developing best practices in agriculture.


Dr Cláudia Inês da Silva

Dr Cláudia Inês da Silva, ecologist at the bee laboratory at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Infographic

Her research team is heading a large collaborative effort to develop an online pollen catalog.


 

The online pollen catalog

Hibiscus pollen

Hibiscus pollen under the microscope.

Since 2015, Bayer has been sponsoring and supporting the compilation of an online pollen catalog developed by the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil. In the catalog, named ‘Rede de Catálogo Polínico online’ (RCPol), researchers are including data from various pollen collections around the world. “For the first two years, we focused on generating data related to 542 plant species and identified the fl oral resources, mainly pollen and nectar, which are important for a bees’ diet,” says Dr Cláudia Inês da Silva, ecologist at the bee laboratory of the USP. To generate the data, the researchers have been sampling pollen in agricultural areas and around apiaries, quantifying the composition and spatial-temporal distribution of floral resources, and documenting them in the pollen libraries of the partnering palynology laboratories. To facilitate identification and make the information easy to access, the team digitizes the plant and pollen images. The project is planned to continue until 2019 in order to enlarge the amount of available data, expanding the pollen libraries of the palynology laboratories of the partnering institutions.

 
Professor Alexandra-Maria Klein

At Germany’s University of Freiburg, Professor Alexandra-Maria Klein is in charge of the pollinator manual project, together with her postdoc, Dr Virginie Boreux.

“The pollen libraries can serve as tools for the management of bee pastures and the surroundings of cultivated areas.”
Dr Cláudia Inês da Silva

Dr da Silva passionately highlights the power of the generated data: “The pollen libraries can serve as tools for the management of bee pastures and the surroundings of cultivated areas. Making RCPol publicly available will provide information to beekeepers and farmers about the management of plants that are preferentially visited by bees collecting pollen and nectar, which is relevant for honey and pollen production, and for pollination of cultivated plants,” she further explains.

Many research teams are participating and contributing to this joint approach, within Brazil, but also in other parts of Latin America (Argentina and Colombia) and Europe (Germany, France, Spain). “In this project, we see intensive exchange and collaboration within the scientific bee community worldwide,” says Quaglierini. “By disclosing our project results at national and international events, we hope this community involvement will increase even further.”

 
“The only way we can work out how to protect specific groups or species of bees is to know which ones rely on which plants and vice versa and understand their nesting requirements.”
Professor Alexandra-Maria Klein

Practical handbook in the field

Another tool that will provide practical, hands-on information to farmers, growers, applicators, advisors and scientists alike is the Pollinator Manual, a handbook currently being developed by Professor Freitas and his colleagues at the UFC in collaboration with the University of Freiburg in Germany, Bayer and Syngenta. “Our Pollinator Handbook will inform farmers, growers and other interested stakeholders about whether a specific crop depends on insect pollination or not. If it does, the user will find information about specific pollinator species which are relevant for their crops.”

Honey bee

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) visiting cashew (Anacardium occidentale) flowers. Honey bees are important cashew pollinators in Northeast Brazil.

Carpenter bee

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa frontalis) visiting a passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) flower. These flowers are pollinated only by large bulky bees like this species, one of its major pollinators.

The manual will also provide important information for the conservation of pollinators. “The only way we can work out how to protect specific groups or species of bees is to know which ones rely on which plants and vice versa and understand their nesting requirements,” says Professor Alexandra-Maria Klein, heading the Faculty on Nature Conservation and Landscape Ecology at Freiburg University, Germany.

Stingless bee

Stingless bee (Melipona seminigra) visiting the Annato (Bixa orellana) flower. The bee species is an important pollinator of this crop which provides natural dye.

“It’s time to generate important information for the conservation of pollinators in Brazil and, consequently, improve agricultural production,” states Freitas. The project has recently started and the team has defined the relevant crops for Brazilian agriculture which will feature in the Pollinator Manual. “To make it easier to use, all crops and pollinator species in the handbook will be illustrated with photos,” he concludes.

Bayer is convinced that by translating the scientific findings into easy-to-understand best practice recommendations, this manual will provide stakeholders with useful information. “In the near future, this new handbook may lead Brazilian farmers towards crop-specific, pollinator-friendly farming practices,” notes Dr Christian Maus, Global Lead Scientist at the Bayer Bee Care Center in Germany. The Pollinator Manual is intended to be finalized by end of 2018.

 
 

 
Bee hive in a tree

Honey bee colonies abandon their hives due to a lack of water, shade or nectar sources, pest infestation and other unfavorable conditions.

Management measures, such as providing clean, fresh water, shade, moving colonies to and from the crop during and post flowering and protecting colonies from pests can significantly reduce colony losses caused by absconding.
 

Moth-infested colony

Weak and Wax Moth-infested colony due to a lack of proper hive management.

Such hives must be removed from the crop, cleaned and replaced by strong, healthy colonies which are managed properly to avoid similar problems arising.
 

Water pipe

Due to a lack of other clean water sources, bees were drinking water, for example, from leaking irrigation pipes which can be too hot or contaminated, for instance with bacteria, or contain fertilizers.

A clean, fresh and cool source of water must be provided close to the hives to prevent bees drinking irrigation pipe water.
 

Melon field

Incorrect use of crop protection products and lack of good beekeeping practices (spraying of bee-toxic products during crop blooming, failure in removing hives after the pollination period) led to bee mortalities.

In this case, the advice was to coordinate application with the time bees are placed in the crop in a way that prevents exposure.
 

Honey bee

Weeds blooming nearby at the same time as the crop, which relies heavily on insects for pollination, may compete for pollinators.

In this case, recommendation is to mow or cut down weed flowers at this crop stage to avoid competition.
 

 

Bee nutrition: Development of artificial diets for bee colonies

Linked to the study on pollination efficacy and honey bee colony health in managed melon pollination in northeastern Brazil, Bayer collaborated with the University of São Paulo to look into the development of a food supplement for honey bee colonies being used for managed pollination under challenging conditions.

In melon growing regions of Brazil, honey bees are brought in to help pollinate the crop but melon flowers only provide some of the nutritional elements they require to stay healthy. Better nutrition may be provided by the wild flowers which sometimes border the melon fields. However, these may not always be available in sufficient quantity to provide nutrition for all. Moreover, in some cases, the surrounding flowering vegetation may have to be removed in order not to distract the honey bees from the crop. Offering additional nutrients to honey bees, as a dietary supplement, can help to keep the bee colonies healthy and in the crop fields, resulting in increased pollination efficiency for melon crops. To achieve this goal, researchers identified suitable ingredients – which are locally accessible and affordable – and preparation methods for an artificial bee diet. Furthermore, the project team set up directives for optimal storage and feeding instructions to be used by beekeepers.

 
Students preparing bee diet

Student, Victor Monteiro (left) and Kamyla Tavares, Market Development at Bayer, prepare the artificial bee diet, based on locally accessible and affordable ingredients.

Food supplements

The developed food supplements positively influence colony growth and health, serving well as an artificial diet for honey bee colonies in the melon project.

The adequacy of the developed recipes was verified in honey bee colony trials, showing that the food supplements positively influence colony growth and health and serve well as an artificial diet for bee colonies. As such, colony losses due to food scarcity in managed melon pollination could be reduced. Further work is ongoing to optimize the diet to specific Brazilian scenarios other than melon pollination, such as watermelon and apple.

 
 

Another interesting finding which can play into optimizing crop protection use with regard to pollinator safety is that the highest foraging activity was seen in the morning. Spraying of insecticides can, therefore, be planned for late afternoon or night when there will be fewer bees in the crop. Additionally, it was seen that the bees mainly foraged close to the hives. An important aspect when distributing the managed colonies in the field in order to maximize the bees’ visits to the melon flowers and hence pollination.

A positive finding from the bee activity monitoring was that native wild bees could be providing some additional pollination services, too. For melons, this is mainly in areas away from the beehives and close to field borders. It is often seen that a broader spectrum of different bee species act in a complementary way so that some visit when the weather is too hot for other species, when the number of flowers is not high enough to attract others or when flowers are too far away from a beehive or nests of other species.

Next steps

Based on the findings of the study, Freitas was able to define some key measures, such as good hygienic conditions within the hives, their position in the field as well as the regular replacement of queen bees, that could help beekeepers to optimize the conditions for their honey bee colonies. In addition, he advised both the growers and beekeepers on a crop protection regime which ensures the safety of pollinators and brings benefits to the grower in terms of pollination efficiency. “There is a need to incorporate pollination services into the melon production system in the region and to develop pollination management plans specific to each cropping scenario,” he summarizes. The measures are being implemented according to the needs on the different farms and further data about their impact on pollinator health and melon pollination is anticipated by the end of 2017.

 

Conclusion

Bayer is working to help growers optimize – and so to increase – melon yields in northeastern Brazil, the biggest melon growing area in the country. Additionally, connecting different stakeholders and filling in gaps in knowledge about bees and other pollinators’ pollen and nectar dietary requirements, as well as information on pollination of agricultural crops, may lead to even more pollinatorfriendly approaches, with regard to integrated farming solutions. After all, healthy honey bees and thriving wild bee pollinators are seen to boost the production of melons and may also be relevant for other important crops in Brazil.




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Bee research in Brazil Boosting productivity through fruitful partnerships
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