What’s Happening on the Farm: Pollinator habitat research

by | Jun 20, 2016

Pollinator habitat area at the Upper Piedmont Research Area.

Pollinator habitat area at the Upper Piedmont Research Station in Reidsville.

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Periodically, we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are discussing new pollinator habitat research ongoing at all 18 research stations.

18x18-pollinator-habitat-areaBees have been called the spark plug of agriculture. And there’s no denying their integral role in our food supply. If there were no bees, there would be little food. Since last year, all 18 research stations across North Carolina have planted pollinator gardens, which has opened up a unique research opportunity for N.C. State University entomologist David Tarpy.

“We have station staff or research assistants at each station collecting bees from the plots,” said Tarpy. “We are collecting DNA from the bees to gauge types of bees and the size of the hives. From a subsample you can gauge the number of individuals in a hive.”

The bees are collected through passive sampling, or glass bowls that look like flowers and are filled with water that trap and drown the bees, and active sampling from the pollinator plots. DNA is extracted from the leg of the collected bees.

This is the first year of the study, so results are not yet available. “You really need three years to be effective,” said Tarpy. “You need three data points to have trend, and I would love to see this be a 10-year study.” The primary results of the study will be the effectiveness of the pollinator plots on increasing the bee population. “We can look at what size a plot needs to be to be effective and make a difference,” he said.

This is the second year that Kelly Snider of the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury has organized ordering seed and getting pollinator plots planted at all stations. “Each station has a plot that contains a wildflower mix of about 17 different types of seed and a plot where the stations plants their own plants,” said Snider. “At the Salisbury station, we have planted a field of sunflowers that we plan to combine for seed and replant the seed.”

Snider said maintenance of pollinator plots is pretty easy. “Once the plots are prepared for the seeds, they’re not much to maintain,” he said. “There’s not much you can do without destroying the habitat, so you just water the plots and wait until the first frost to mow off.”

Snider offers the following advice for how to plant a pollinator garden.

  1. Clear the plot of weeds.
  2. Till up the soil – this is the step you need to spend the most time on. The better you till it, the more successful the garden will be.
  3. Take a soil sample to see what types of amendments need to be added. Soil can be tested for free most of the year through the NCDA&CS Agronomic Services lab.
  4. Use a spin spreader to put seed out. Dilute 3 pounds of seed with 3 pounds of sand and go over the entire area two or three times.
  5. Lightly wet the area to help keep seed in place.

Along with Research Stations, other NCDA&CS divisions have increased their efforts to protect pollinators. More information on the department’s pollinator efforts are online at www.ncagr.gov/pollinators.