Pollinator Research and Bee Safety Studies

From Sunflowers
to Bean Fields

sunflowers
sunflowers
Working with partners around the world, Bayer conducts large-scale field studies to find out, for instance, which bee species visit bean crops in Colombia or vineyards in Chile. Furthermore, Bayer supports pollinator safety studies such as those in Spain and Germany.

One third of all plants consumed by humans benefit, to some extent, from insect pollination. The best-known pollinators are honey bees but more than 20,000 other bee species exist worldwide, including a wide range of solitary bees and bumble bees, and many also help pollinate crops and wild plants. Sustainable agriculture needs crop protection and pollination to go hand in hand, in order to ensure both the quantity and the quality of our food supply. Ensuring good harvests while maintaining the highest possible level of safety for the environment remains an important task for farmers, researchers and the crop protection industry. 

Coralie van Breukelen-Groeneveld
Coralie van Breukelen-Groeneveld
Coralie van Breukelen-Groeneveld, Head of the Bayer Bee Care Center in Monheim, Germany

Through the worldwide Bee Care Program – established in 2011 – Bayer coordinates and unites its activities in the pollinator health and safety areas, in order to advance the development and implementation of sustainable approaches. “We focus on the areas where we feel we, as a company, can genuinely contribute to the well-being of pollinators,” says Coralie van Breukelen-Groeneveld, Global Head Bayer Bee Care in Monheim, Germany. “This is like all of our activities, for instance, regarding the safe use of crop protection products, including pollinator safety studies and innovative application technology, approaches to optimize crop pollination and our efforts to strengthen the relationship between beekeepers and farmers,” she adds.

Polling: Pollination quiz
Test Your Knowledge:

Is every type of bee able to collect nectar from evey type of plant?

Surprise:
Not every type of bee can collect nectar from every type of plant. Some flowers, such as carrot blossoms, are so small that only tiny insects can reach its nectar. Sometimes pollinators even have to shake the blossoms of plants like tomato and blueberry so that the pollen falls out. Powerful insects like bumble bees manage this best.
Well done! 
Not every type of bee can collect nectar from every type of plant. Some flowers, such as carrot blossoms, are so small that only tiny insects can reach its nectar. Sometimes pollinators even have to shake the blossoms of plants like tomato and blueberry so that the pollen falls out. Powerful insects like bumble bees manage this best.

Pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and flies play an important role in the cultivation of many crops, especially fruit, vegetables and nuts. In other crops, such as corn, bees may collect pollen without contributing to pollination. Still, it is not completely known which of these scenarios apply for different crops in different countries. Therefore, Bayer supports real-life field studies, such as in South America, investigating whether and if so which bees and other pollinators are present in grape crops and vineyards in Chile and from bean fields in Colombia.

20,000

Honey bees are the best known pollinators, but 20,000 other bee species exist worldwide. Many of them also help pollinate crops and wild plants.

Fly-by Visitors to Chilean Vineyards

Chile is one of the largest wine producers in the world, and table grapes are among its main exports. To ensure success on the international market, farmers protect their precious vines from diseases and pests by using crop protection products. In order to minimize any risk for pollinators, it is important for growers to know if and when the bees are foraging in the vineyards. Together with another industry partner, the local Bayer Bee Care Team in Chile commissioned a study with Ceapimayor, the Center for Beekeeping Entrepreneurship at Universidad Mayor in Santiago, Chile, under an academic partnership to see whether grape crops and vineyards are attractive to pollinators.

The researchers of Ceapimayor carried out the field studies in Chile from September 2014 to February 2015 to find out which and how many pollinators were present in the grape farms and vineyards during the flowering period. The research studies were carried out at plantations, counting wild bees and other insects, including wasps, beetles, flies and butterflies, at the test areas. “There are virtually no pollinators in the plantations,” summarizes Alan Lüer. He is responsible for Public & Government Affairs and Stewardship at Bayer and Head of the Bayer Bee Care team in the Chilean Cono Sur region. “We found a significantly higher number of them outside of the vineyards, and in greater variety, too.” Knowing that bees and other pollinators do not find grape flowers particularly attractive when the grape plantations are surrounded by sufficient, alternative pollen-rich flowers and forests, the experts conclude that if Chilean farmers have the right conditions in their fields, they can, for example, use crop protection products on their grapevines even during the flowering period without much risk of exposing bees.

On the Hunt for Bees in Colombian Bean Fields

Dr. Roberto Ramírez Caro
Dr. Roberto Ramírez Caro
Dr. Roberto Ramírez Caro, public and governmental affairs and stewardship for Bayer in Northern Latin America

Another staple food in many South and Central American countries is beans, which belong to the legume class of vegetables. Although the broad bean is usually self-pollinating, another study, which was funded by Bayer and developed in cooperation with scientists at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, aimed to find out whether honey bees or other insects visit flowers in bean crops. At the beginning of the study, the university’s researchers selected five commercial bean farms near Bogotá, the country’s capital, in the heart of Colombia. The researchers, supported by Bayer experts, studied two to five hectares of land on each of the farms to discover how many and what kind of pollinators were found in the bean fields. “The latest results show that honey bees do not find the common bean particularly attractive,” says Professor Dr. Augusto Ramírez Godoy, who was in charge of the study at University together with Professor Rodulfo Ospina. He adds: “That’s due to the structure of the flower. It is almost closed, and this makes it difficult for the honey bees to reach the nectar and pollen.” However, certain stingless bees – members of the Trigona genus – are able to open the bean flowers with their mandibles.

If we’re talking about pollinating cultivated plants, the honey bee Apis mellifera is normally dominant in Colombia. It can be found in most crops. However, until now, it was not clear whether the honey bee is also prevalent in the bean fields.

Dr. Roberto Ramírez Caro
Stingless bees such as Trigona (left, on a citrus blossom) force their way into the almost closed structure of bean flowers (right). Other insects can benefit from the opening that is made.

It turns out that once the blossom is opened, honey bees, bumble bees and spider wasps can also collect nectar and pollen from the blossom. The researchers still need to work out exactly how many bee species come into contact with the bean plants and nearby crops, but they are already planning additional projects. The goal is to fill a gap in our knowledge of insect pollinators – especially when it comes to bees that forage on bean blossoms.

Testing Safety

In crops that are deemed to be attractive for bees, it is essential to ensure that the use of crop protection products does not impose any unacceptable risks to them. When worker bees forage on crops that have been seed-treated with neonicotinoid insecticides, there is a chance that they collect small amounts of these substances with the nectar and pollen from the flowers. Small amounts of these substances are harmless to bee colonies. In recent years, however, there has been growing concern by some stakeholders in Europe that even traces of neonicotinoids could be harmful to the health of honey bees and other pollinators. In 2013, the European Commission (EC) responded to these concerns by asking the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to carry out a review of the safety of neonicotinoid seed treatment products. EFSA highlighted perceived risks and alleged data gaps in particular for their use in bee-attractive crops. As a precautionary measure, the EC restricted the use of three neonicotinoid substances in certain crops deemed attractive to bees, such as oilseed rape. This restriction has had consequences for farming: Without this highly effective seed-treatment, farmers now have to spray crops more often with other insecticides to control pests.

Large oilseed rape fields are an important source of nutrition for bees, as the crop produces abundant amounts of nectar. Additionally, its pollen supplies essential amino acids and proteins, which the bees need to raise their brood. In order to address the concerns of European authorities regarding the bee safety of neonicotinoid seed treatment, Bayer initiated one of the world’s largest bee monitoring studies in oilseed rape fields. The study’s participants included bee and crop protection experts as well as beekeepers and farmers in Northeastern Germany. Their goal: To make a large-scale test on landscape level of the crop protection product containing the active substance clothianidin under realistic agricultural conditions.

75%

Around 75 percent of the world’s major crops depend, at least partly, on insect pollination. These insects contribute around 235 – 577 billion US dollars to the global economy annually – up to 8 percent of the total production. 
Source: IPBES pollination report

Several farmers provided their agricultural land. Throughout a total of 800 hectares, they sowed oilseed rape seeds that had been pre-treated with clothianidin in 2013, the last year when the usage of the restricted neonicotinoids was allowed in winter oilseed rape. The bee health monitoring activities began in spring 2014, during the flowering period: Experts from the Bee Research Institute in Oberursel, Germany, positioned 96 honey bee hives alongside oilseed rape fields. In addition, two types of wild bee species were released: the buff-tailed bumble bee and the solitary red mason bee. Under these realistic conditions, the researchers wanted to determine any effect that the crop protection product might have on the different bee species. 

“Many field trials from different groups of scientists have proven that crops which have been seed-treated with neonicotinoids do not harm the health of honey bee colonies under realistic conditions,” says Dr. Christian Maus, Global Lead Scientist Bee Care at Bayer. The new study confirms this; honey bees showed stable colony development and delivered good honey yields. Similar findings were observed for the other two bee species: The strength of the bumble bee colonies and the number of queens, drones and workers remained stable. The red mason bee also showed normal nesting and reproductive behavior. These results provide strong additional evidence that growing this crop from seed treated with clothianidin is safe for all the tested bee species.

Buzzing Under the Spanish Sun

As well as the studies mentioned above, a multi-year honey bee monitoring study in sunflower was launched in Spain in 2015. Sunflowers are an important crop for both farmers and beekeepers in Spain. In recent years, farmers have cultivated roughly 800,000 hectares for sunflower production – bringing in around 350 million Euros in 2013. Sunflowers bloom during summer, when high temperatures and water scarcity limit the development of wild flora, resulting in depleted sources of food for honey bees. Therefore, beekeepers consider this crop a valuable source of nectar for their hives, which are often situated in the vicinity of sunflower fields during the hot and long summers of central and southern Spain.

Many field trials from different groups of scientists have proven that crops which have been seed-treated with neonicotinoids properly do not harm the health of honey bee colonies under realistic conditions.

Dr. Christian Maus, Global Lead Scientist Bee Care at Bayer

Bayer has teamed up with bee researchers from the University of Córdoba, Spain’s lnstituto Nacional de lnvestigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria (INIA), and an industry partner for this large-scale study – the first of its kind to be carried out in Spanish sunflower fields. The aim is to investigate if there is any side effect from seeds treated with the substances clothianidin and thiamethoxam on the health of bee colonies. This large-scale field study is running until spring 2018, after which researchers will analyze the gathered data. 

Bayer hopes that these field studies, carried out under realistic field conditions, will make an important contribution to the bee health debate in Europe. Bayer is convinced that broad cooperation is essential to develop sustainable solutions for pollinator health. As a company dedicated to crop protection, Bayer is committed to environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture practices, including the protection of beneficial insects and honey bees.

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From Sunflowers to Bean Fields