Midas™ the first line of camelina to have been developed exclusively in Canada, by scientists in Saskatoon, is one of several flowering crops being used by researchers in Minnesota and South Dakota to determine if sowing cycles of flowering plants can help revive the declining population of bees and other pollinating insects.
The North American bee population has seen dramatic decline in the past decade, a phenomenon with wide-ranging implications. Seventy-five per cent of North America food production: the apple crop, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots, avocados, almonds and many other vegetables, fruits and nuts require pollination.
Loss of these crops could cost an estimated $75 billion and would obviously have a serious impact on the human diet.
Certain types of pesticides may be one source of stress for the bees, some studies suggest. Scientists also are examining the possibility that bee colonies have been hit by a virus or invasive parasite. Others argue that lack of crop diversity — not enough variety of flowering crops — could be causing malnutrition among bees and other pollinators.
“There are a lot of theories about Colony Collapse Disorder,” said Russ Gesch, a plant physiologist with the United States Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Laboratory in Morris, MN. “But nutrition is a big part of it. Poor nutrition sets them up to fail.”
The pollinator project is collecting data on how bees respond in spring to fall-planted flowering crops — pennycress, camelina and canola. Spring-planted crops include borage, field marigold, crambe, echium, calendula and cuphea.
One variety of winter camelina that has seen excellent results was developed at North Dakota State University, said Gesch.
He noted the project has recently sourced Canadian-bred Midas brand spring camelina — the only Canadian seed being used in the pollinator project.
Midas is a variety of camelina, bred by Agriculture and AgriFood Canada scientists and commercialized by Saskatoon-based Linnaeus Plant Sciences. Linnaeus hopes to contract 5,000 acres of Midas to Saskatchewan farmers next spring as work continues on developing camelina as an environmentally-friendly industrial oilseed to replace petroleum in the manufacture of lubricants, hydraulic fluids, plastics and polymers.
Because spring-type camelina has been successfully fall-planted in Southern Saskatchewan, researchers expect it also to fair well in the United States. The seed is being planted in the U.S. this fall and researchers will see how bees respond in late April or early May to the yellow flowers of the camelina plant.
“We’re interested in diversifying cropping systems,” said Gesch. “We’re looking at how pollinators respond to these different flowering crops.”
Plant biologist Carrie Eberle said researchers study the concentration of bees as they arrive to feed on each type of crop. They also analyze the protein content of the bees’ internally.
Gesch said the results are early, but promising.
“It does look very interesting if you look at the number of insects and the peaks in flowering,”explained Gesch. “They love canola. And camelina is in the mix.”
The United States Upper Midwest is the ideal location for the pollinator trial due to the large established bee colonies there.
But the fear is that a lack of crop diversity in the area may have contributed to the decline in pollinators. Farmers have been planting a lot of soybeans and corn in recent years. So bees have had few flowers to feed and forage on in the spring.
“There’s a lot of bare ground out there in the spring,” said Gesch, who noted one third of the U.S. honeybee population is located in eastern Minnesota and North and South Dakota in the summer. In the fall, the beehives are transported south to California and Texas — mainly to pollinate almond orchards.
“In the fall, the bees should be beefed up because it’s very stressful on them to ship them south,” said Gesch.
The lack of flowering nutrients in the northern plains has led beekeepers to feed their colonies corn syrup and soybean meal to toughen them for the journey south. For humans, that would be like living on a diet of Coca-Cola and tofu, he said.
So the push is on to test the flowering plants such as camelina and eventually encourage farmers to include them in their annual crop rotations.
“The camelina starts flowering in late April or early May and provides one of the first feed sources for bees leaving the hives after the winter. It’s very hardy,” said Gesch, who noted the scientists also are double-cropping the Canadian oilseed. This way the yellow-flowered camelina can be harvested early and farmers can still grow a second crop, in time for fall harvest.