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Pollinator Planning in Crop Production

By Graham Parsons, MSc. PAg, Pollinator Biosecurity Specialist, Prince Albert

honey bee on canola
A managed honey bee eyes a canola flower
for pollination.

Crop pollination can be easily overlooked in crop production, but shouldn't be. Depending on your crop type, planning for pollinators will provide them some protection and is likely to benefit the producer as well. In many cases wind pollination is adequate for good crop production. Crops like cereals, field peas, flax and lentils are self or wind pollinated. But many other crops such as canola, mustard, sunflower, buckwheat, clovers, borage and a few specialty crops can benefit or even need insect pollination. Depending on the need for insect pollination for yield, it will be beneficial to provide a proportional consideration to pollinator planning.

By far our most common crop to benefit from insect pollination is canola. While much of the yield results from self-pollination, approximately 20 per cent yield could be added with increased insect pollination. For many producers, the addition of 20 per cent to the yield of any crop would be a welcome bonus. Other crops with the potential for around 20 per cent yield increase are mustard and sunflower. Between 50 to 80 per cent of the yield of fava (or faba) beans, coriander and buckwheat is attributable to insect pollination. And production of seed from red clover, alfalfa, borage, sainfoin, as well as fruit and vegetable crops absolutely need pollination.

First in pollinator planning consideration should be the careful application of pesticides. Available economic thresholds for pest insects should be used to gauge the need for intervention and insecticide only applied if required. Beneficial insect predators such as lacewings, ladybug and rove beetles can be killed by insecticides and allow pest species to benefit. When pesticide is warranted, choose the safest or least poisonous product available for non-target insects like bees. The 2021 Guide to Crop Protection is an excellent source for this information and allows for some comparison of available options.

The timing and location of insecticide application can also be considered to help maintain pollinating insect populations. Most insect pollinators will be flying during the warmest parts of the day with bright light available. If possible, spraying during the night, as well as dusk and dawn, will avoid non-target insects that could be foraging on flowering crops. As well, avoiding overspray of flowering ditches, wetland and field margins will provide some refuge for pollinators and other beneficial insects. It is also always a good idea to check the Fieldwatch maps for locations that may be sensitive to spray. Honey bee and leafcutter beekeepers have been encouraged to map their locations so that a quick check by applicators may identify locations to avoid, or beekeepers to contact to take other precautionary measures if avoiding the locations isn't an option.

Depending on pollinator importance to yield, planning could also include contacting a local honeybee or leafcutter beekeeper for pollination services. Where yield is dependent on insect this may be an important step in getting adequate pollination. For most pollinated crops two bee hives per acre are recommended. Beekeepers also look for good wind protection and nearby water sources, so maintaining old yard sites can make a location more appealing to beekeepers.

Producers can also locate their pollinator crops adjacent to high quality pollinator habitat. If your farm and the landscape allow, placement of crops that depend heavily on pollinators adjacent to a mix of wetlands, woodland or willows and uncultivated areas can benefit those crops. Wild, unmanaged pollinators like bumble bees, solitary bees, wasp and flies can use these areas and spill out into the crop in search of forage. For crops that are pollinator dependent, a strategy that includes a mix of managed pollinators and wild pollinators could yield the best pollination and resulting high yields.

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