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USDA-ARS Research Agronomist Frank Forcella (right) discusses echium with participants in the 2011 Summer Field Day at the Swan Lake Research Farm north of Morris.

A honey of a research project

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What do alternative crops being researched at the Soils Lab in Morris have to do with the almond crop in California?

Honeybees.

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According to Christi Heinz, Executive Director of Project Apis m., a nonprofit honeybee research organization, the bees that will be pollinating the California almond crop in February are in Minnesota right now. And they need a diverse floral landscape to start building up their pollen stores for winter.

Heinz and Jeff Hull, a third-generation bee keeper and president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association, were presenters during the Swan Lake Summer Field Day, held Aug. 18 in Morris. The theme for the event was "Sustainable Landscapes: Food, Feed, Fuel, and Future" and focused on the new/alternative biomass and oilseed crops being developed by scientists at the USDA-ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory.

These crops include calendula, camelina, cuphea and echium. Agronomist Frank Forcella said these crops provide oil that can replace petroleum in paints as well as the coconut oil in personal care items.

Pointing to the echium, Forcella said, "That one in particular in its seeds produces something called stearidonic acid. What do they use stearidonic acid for? The personal care product industry loves it because when you put it on your face, it takes away all the wrinkles."

The other benefit to the plants is that they flower throughout the year, providing a diverse landscape for honeybees and other native pollunators.

Heinz says the declining honeybee populations and Colony Collapse Disorder are due to viruses and pests but mainly to the bees' nutrition. Similar to people, Heinz said bees need a diverse menu to build up a full set of amino acids for health.

"Good nutrition for a honeybee is a diverse source of florals. Different pollens have different amino acids," Heinz said. "It's very important what they are receiving in nutrition now in these northern states because they are building their colonies and pollen is being stored for overwintering."

Heinz said they are losing about 30 percent of their colonies over winter and that's unacceptable.

There are 750,000 acres of almond trees in California, producing two billion pounds of the nut. And Heinz said honeybees are the most efficient way to pollinate that crop. She said that they need about two bee colonies per acre, so that means 1.5 million colonies are needed to pollinate the California almond crop every year. Honeybee producers get about $150 per colony rental fee so it is a significant part of their income.

Almonds bloom from early February to mid-March, making them one of the earliest blooming plants with the highest need.

"It's February, they're insects. They're not used to being active," she said. So how well they do all comes down to nutrition.

"Right now, most of the bees that were in California in February are in this area. They migrate here because of your flowering crops and for production of honey. One way to decrease [overwinter] losses is to make sure that pollen stores are good going into winter and that happens right here."

Hull said that every third bite of food you take is related to honeybee pollination. Crops such as Washington apples and cherries and blueberries all depend on pollination.

But he said the ground is changing and there are fewer flowering plants on agricultural land. He said that alfalfa and red clover grown on dairy farms used to provide excellent foraging areas for bees. When the dairies went, so did those flowering crops. Which means less food for honeybees.

"In May, we bring our bees up from Louisiana and shoot for the dandelions for food. After the dandelions, there's really nothing until our basswood trees come in July," Hull said.

Soils Lab researchers are hoping that the specialty oilseed crops that they are working on could be planted in poor soils or double-cropped with traditional crops such as soybeans.

Soils Lab agronomist Frank Forcella said the goals of their research are to diversify the landscape, provide something economical for growers to include in their fields and they want to provide for honeybees and other native pollinators.

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