By Nickolaj Bogatyrev, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia
It is well known that 95% of the commercial value of beekeeping can be attributed to pollination and not to honey, wax or other bee products. In other words, even if we did not harvest bee products, it would still be worth keeping and breeding honeybees solely for crop pollination.
However, honeybees are not universal pollinators because of their relatively short proboscis and the limited weather conditions that are suitable for foraging. Nevertheless, almost every terrestrial ecosystem contains insects that pollinate wild plants, as well as cultivated crops. Bumblebees are among these pollinators. It seems that thanks to their long proboscis, high speed of foraging, and the ability to work under diverse weather conditions, bumblebees are efficient pollinators of many crops including vegetables, fruits, berries, fodder and medicinal plants. Now several commercial bumblebee breeding companies rear these beneficial insects to sell to plant growers. But the prices are high: US$ 70-150 per colony per year (it is necessary to buy new colonies annually to ensure reliable pollination). It is recognised that honeybee keeping can also require serious investments of time, effort, equipment, and materials. It is well known that wild pollinators are self-dependent and do not need any special measures that are difficult or expensive.
Is it possible to combine the benefits of intensively bred wild pollinators with cost-effectiveness, self-serving features and affordability? The positive answer could be given within the philosophy of permaculture. So, to use natural possibilities to serve our artificial agricultural ecosystems will cost almost nothing. Carefully designed measures can attract wild pollinators to the cultural plantations and assist in increasing pollinator populations in particular areas, without serious investments of materials and time.
Homes for bees
Often passive protective measures for conservation are not enough to save wild pollinator populations and to provide saturated plant pollination ie where every flower is pollinated completely. Therefore, more active methods are recommended: to increase the population density of pollinators one can use simple artificial homes for bumblebees and solitary bees.
Solitary bees occupy hollow stems of a variety of grasses. To attract them one should take any dry stems of grass that have soft or hollow centres (with an inner diameter of 4-8 mm), cut them into pieces 15-25 cm long and tie them into bunches 10-15 cm in diameter. Wrap these bunches in waterproof material, for example waxed cardboard, and attach them horizontally 1-4 m above ground level to a post, a shed wall, a house or a fence in a sunny, dry place. Solitary bees willingly occupy these tubes, which can also be made of old newspapers.
Good nesting places for carpenter bees are old, dry and partly rotten trees. If there are no such trees in your garden, one or two old logs placed vertically will serve as an artificial nesting place for these beautiful and beneficial insects.
If you have noticed bumblebees searching for a suitable nesting place, it is worth providing them with special nest-boxes. These artificial homes can be made of dry, solid wood (you must be sure that the timber is untreated) or thick plywood (20-25 mm thick). The inner cavity of the boxes must not be less than 150 x 150 x 150 mm and not more than 200 x 200 x 200 mm. One of the walls must have a 15 mm diameter entrance hole. You must be able to open the lid (roof). Each box should be equipped with nesting material of cotton wool, dry moss, soft dry grass or other similar material, where the queen can establish and start her nest. The mortality rate of bumblebees will decrease if the nest-box is painted with waterproof paint. Nest-boxes can be manufactured from other materials: ceramics, bricks, high density fibreboard (HDF), waterproof chipboard, exterior board and solid brands of polystyrene foam. The outer surface of all these materials should be covered by waterproof paint or the nest-boxes need to be placed under shelter. These domiciles can be attached to trees, fences, posts, and walls and must be oriented in a southerly or south-easterly direction (Figure 1). Protection against unauthorised access must also be provided. This means that the site is reliably protected or the boxes attached at higher level â€\" at least 4-5 m above the ground. These nest-boxes are suitable for bumblebee species that naturally inhabit above-ground nesting sites. But there are many species that prefer underground dwellings and, for example, live in nests abandoned by rodents. These bumblebees require nest-boxes in the ground (Figure 2). These ground homes need plastic or metal exit tubes 50-100 cm long, and it is obvious that these nest-boxes must be totally waterproof. If domiciles are installed at the beginning of the season before the occupation period by the searching queens, and the insects successfully inhabit them, no maintenance measures will be required during summer. In the late autumn all the domiciles should be inspected. The dead bumblebees, comb and nesting material should be withdrawn and burnt. The inner cavities of the domiciles should be disinfected by blowtorch. Any cool, dry, ventilated place is suitable for winter storage of the domiciles. Attracting bumblebees with the help of these simple measures is easy, cheap and timesaving. At the same time you are facilitating and maintaining populations of wild pollinators. This not only gives the benefit of increased yields due to pollinator activities, but also carries out the very important work of wildlife conservation - most bumblebees species are endangered.
Recommendations for crop plantations
1. A series of nectar and pollen producing plants should form a continuous sequence from early spring until late autumn. It is also very desirable that blooming periods overlap to give foragers the opportunity to switch from one crop to another.
2. The plantations should be quite small. Bumblebees prefer to forage within flower spots of not more than 100 m2.
3. To avoid the possibility of competition it is better to grow plants with flowers of different corolla depth simultaneously to give optimal possibilities for various pollinators foraging.
4. To leave space with undisturbed grass and soil as refuge sites for pollinators is essential. Thus total grass cutting and mowing should be avoided.
5. Crops should not be planted close to motorways and busy roads: heavily loaded with nectar and/or pollen, foragers are very vulnerable to vehicles and many will perish unnecessarily.
6. Application of any chemical treatment to crops MUST NOT be carried out during their flowering periods.
7. It should be taken into account that bumblebees do not forage within a 25 m radius of their nest. Thus colonies must not be installed less than 25 m from plantations.
If the above measures are undertaken the fauna of pollinators will have good conditions to ensure their continued existence and performance of their beneficial roles.
Permaculture \'permanent agriculture\' is the conscious design of artificial ecosystems that possess the high productivity of conventional agricultural systems combined with the self-serving, self-depending features of natural ecosystems.
Further reading - see our bookstore
Michener,c (2000) The bees of the world.
Bosch,J; Kemp,W (2001) How to manage the blue orchard bee as an orchard pollinator.
Delaplane,K; Mayer,D (2000) Crop pollination by bees.
Dogterom,M (2002) Pollination with mason bees.
O\'Toole,C (2001) The red mason bee: taking the sting out of beekeeping.
O\'Toole,C (2002) Bumblebees.
Roubik,D (1995) Pollination of cultivated plants in the tropics.
Sommeijer,M; Ruijter,A de (2000) Insect pollination in glasshouses.
Dr Nickolaj Bogatyrev is Senior Scientific Researcher of the Laboratory of Insect Ecology at the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences. Recently he has worked as a visiting professor at Mons University in Belgium. Dr Bogatyrev has published more than 60 papers on the ecology and ethology of bumblebees, as well as methods of protection, attraction and rearing of these beneficial pollinators. The details and peculiarities of bumblebee keeping are described in his book Applied Ecology of Bumble Bees.
[Bees for Development Journal #65]