‘Build habitat and they will come’: MSU research aims to bring bees back to Midwest farms

Sep 7, 2016

by Kathleen Alexander

The native bee population in the Great Lakes region is on a decline, forcing farmers to explore new, bee-boosting tactics to produce the high yields of fruits and vegetables producers and consumers depend on.


Dr. Rufus Isaacs, a bee researcher, and professor in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University, meets with the host, Kirk Heinze, on Greening of the Great Lakes to talk about the work he’s doing to bring bees back to the Midwest farms and gardens.

Although data collected on bee populations is relatively sparse, Isaacs has spent the last four years on the issue since receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant is a part of the Integrated Crop Pollination Project, which allows Isaacs to collaborate with other researchers across the country on ways to augment populations of species essential for agriculture, such as bees.

He believes the use of pesticides, disease and reduced natural habitat from the development of land for residential and agricultural purposes have made it difficult for the over 400 different bee species native to Michigan to survive and pollinate.

Among other things, Isaacs and his colleagues hope to expand spaces for wild bees to thrive close to farmland. His strategy to improve pollination sustainability involves luring wild bees to farms so producers don’t have to rent commercial honey bees. By planting wildflowers and using bee-safe pesticides, farmers can become less dependent on high-cost and out-of-state honey bees to pollinate their crops.

One study Isaacs conducted supports this method, which indicated higher blueberry yields when man-made wild bee habitats were developed nearby.

“We're supporting those bees with pollen, nectar and a place to nest, “ he says. “That’s boosting those wild bee numbers to help honey bees when it’s bloom time in the Spring.”

Similar procedures can also be done on a smaller scale to increase pollination and mitigate bee decline. Isaacs explains that home gardeners can look to resources like MSU’s Smart Gardening program to attract pollinators to their fruit and vegetable plantings.

Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on AM 870.