Alabama soybean grower Annie Dee is working with nature on her 2,500 acres. The United Soybean Board member has seen the benefit of beneficial insects in her own fields and is supplementing native populations with honeybees.
"Recently, we had a population of alfalfa leaf hoppers building when the population crashed according to our crop scout," recalls Dee. She credits natural controls for the crash. "I think sometimes we work so hard trying to do things ourselves when it is better to work with nature."
For Dee, working with nature means maintaining abundant wildflowers both on Conservation Reserve Program acres as well as in natural habitat and experimenting with habitat strips between fields. While the impact of beneficials is hard to evaluate, Dee is confident hosting honey bees pays.
Possible yield boost of 8-18%
"We have five groups of hives around soybeans on our farm," she says. "Research in Brazil suggests as much as an eight to 18% increase in yields due to bees. If my average yield is 60 bushels, that adds from 5 to 11 bushels on every acre. Multiply that by 2,500 acres and it adds up."
Matt O'Neal, associate professor, Entomology, Iowa State University, is hoping to get a better handle on the benefit honeybees, as well as other beneficials, including native pollinators, bring to the combine. Research is underway in 18 fields, 10 with beehives placed adjacent to the fields. Half of the fields are surrounded by other corn and soybean fields, with the remaining fields surrounded by other crops or vegetation. O'Neal and his graduate students have caged plants in each field preventing insects from accessing the plants during flowering. Yields from these plants will be compared to pollinator available plants.
"There are more than just honey bees visiting soybeans. Of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America, we've identified at least 43 present in Iowa soybean fields," says O'Neal. "We use traps to catch pollinators in these fields and study pollen found on honey bees to evaluate their activity in soybean fields."
Preliminary results suggest honeybees spend more time in soybeans if fields are surrounded by only corn and soybeans. "These fields are where we expect to see the most yield impact," says O'Neal.