Through my lifelong experiences in agriculture and as a beekeeper, I have sometimes observed conflict between my fellow apiarists and row-crop farmers. For legitimate reasons, beekeepers are very protective of their apiaries, and farmers need crop protection products to battle pests in their fields. These two goals can sometimes lead to conflict, with beekeepers worrying about the health of their colonies and farmers viewing managed beehives as an annoyance they are forced to consider when managing their crops. However, as in most conflicts, communication and education go a long way in helping row-crop farmers co-exist peaceably with their beekeeping neighbors.
An important point to remember is that bees and row-crops are mutually beneficial to one another. Despite the fact that soybeans are self-pollinated, studies have shown yield increases of over 15 percent when fields are in the vicinity of managed apiaries. Honeybees also benefit from having soybeans on which to forage, and the crop provides a reliable pollen and nectar source throughout the summer, even when other flowers may not be blooming. As with food consumed by humans, all pollen sources are not equal in their nutritional value. Soybean pollen is high quality and contains many antioxidants which contribute favorably to colony health. Consumption of these antioxidants help the bees survive exposure to toxins that they may encounter while foraging.
With these facts in mind, here are some practical tips for soybean growers to avoid negative effects on honeybees and other pollinators when applying pesticides.
Communicate with your neighbors
It may seem obvious, but good communication is key to healthy relationships. Farmers are comfortable discussing herbicide platforms with their neighboring farmers, and conversations with residential neighbors can also help alleviate misunderstandings. Backyard beekeeping is a popular hobby, and it’s a good practice to help neighbors understand why crop protection products are being applied, why they are used, and when they are going to be sprayed. Explain that pesticide labels are developed with non-target species such as bees in mind and the precautions that are taken to limit the impact on pollinators. By letting beekeeping neighbors know of your plans in advance, they can shut their bees in the hive the evening before pesticides are applied to limit their exposure.
Since farm families account for only about two percent of the U.S. population, misconceptions about farming abound. Take time to explain why crop protection products are important tools in maintaining the global food supply. Tell the story of modern agriculture in a positive way. The adoption of genetically modified crops has reduced insecticide use. When coupled with the improvements in insecticides themselves, crop production is much safer for pollinators than it once was.
Fieldwatch is a database maintained by Purdue University. Beekeepers and specialty crop growers register their locations, and applicators can quickly check for sensitive areas when planning to apply crop protection products. Go to https://il.driftwatch.org/map and enter your location to view neighboring registrations.
Always read and follow label directions
As we all know, pesticide labels are the law. These labels are developed with protection of pollinators and the environment in mind. Be especially cautious when applying a product that has a bee hazard label (Figure 1). Labels often recommend spraying at a time when bees are less likely to be visiting, generally early morning or late evening. Follow label instructions to limit off-target movement. Observe wind speed, application rate, nozzle type and other label restrictions.
Use an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach
One of the main principles of IPM is to consider the economics of a pesticide application. The University of Illinois publishes economic thresholds for common pests: https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/around-county/2018-10-24-integrated-pest-management-what-are-economic-thresholds-and-how-are. If insect damage does not reach the threshold, application of a crop protection product will most likely result in a negative ROI. Additionally, use the most specific pesticide possible for the target insect. Don’t apply a broad-spectrum product if a more targeted one is available.
By following these simple steps, farmers can limit their negative impact on honeybees and other pollinators. This is beneficial to all, as 35 percent of our food supply is dependent upon these insects. Additionally, improved relationships with our neighbors are always desirable!