Oregon State University aims to see if creating more foraging habitat for bumblebees will increase the pollination and yield of blueberry bushes, which mostly depend on bees to turn their blossoms into berries.
OSU researchers will determine if bordering fields with vegetation that blooms from early spring to late fall will attract bumblebees and other native bees searching for pollen for food. The scientists hope that while the bees are at it, they'll pollinate the nearby blueberry flowers, which lonely blossom for a short period.
"It's very important to give native pollinators a reason to hang around blueberries," explains Sujaya Rao, an OSU entomologist working on the project. "Just one fruit crop with three or four weeks of bloom is not enough to sustain a bumblebee colony. If more native pollinators, like bumblebees, can be attracted, the pocketbooks of blueberry growers would benefit."
Rao is seeking blueberry growers in the Willamette Valley who are willing to participate in the study.
She will ask them to plant native or exotic flora that is attractive to bees, such as rosemary, germander, California lilac, sage or red clover. The plants will serve as food – not housing – for the bees, which live in holes in trees or in abandoned rodent burrows in the ground.
Researchers will estimate the number of bees in fields with and without the attractant hedgerows and they'll measure the impact on blueberry yields.
Funded by a USDA grant, the research is part of a five-year study led by Michigan State University addressing challenges faced by specialty crop industries, including vegetable, tree fruit, berry and nut producers across the nation.
Because bees are essential to pollination of blueberries, Oregon growers typically place rented honeybee hives near their fields, but that can cost more than $100 an acre. Honeybees have limitations as pollinators of blueberries, but bumblebees can "buzz pollinate" plants to release pollen deep inside blossoms.