Honey bees & butterflies vital for produce production

Published: Mar. 12, 2015 at 2:51 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 16, 2015 at 2:51 PM EDT
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NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - Farmers in southeastern North Carolina have spent most of the winter months getting ready for spring planting time.

Although it is still a little early for some seeds to be placed in the ground, state agricultural officials have been getting ready for the upcoming season by making sure our insect plant pollinators have an easier time doing their jobs this year.

If we did not have them around, you would not be able to more most of the produce found in the grocery stores and farmer's markets.

Farm land covers almost eight and a half million acres of land in North Carolina. But in the past twenty years, what is grown on that farm land has drastically changed.

Tobacco has always been an important part of North Carolinas economy and a vital crop to our producers. But since the the passage of the federal buyout program, the tobacco industry has been in a transition period.

What now occupies a good deal of farmland in the state are vegetables, including many large scale commercial operations.

But for many of our vegetable crops to be successful, they require pollination. Up to a third of the food we grow and consume in North Carolina can be directly attributed to the pollination work of bees, birds, butterflies and other animals. Some of the work done at the North Carolina State University's Research Centers includes keeping the pollinators healthy for crops like blueberries and other produce that needs pollination at different times of the year.

"If you think about the pollination event, it is a relatively short period of time in the life of a plant, so blueberries bloom for a week or ten days and then it is over for the rest of the year, but where are those insects for the rest of the year" said Doctor Bill Cline, of North Carolina State University. "So the blueberries are just one small part of the picture, or the apples, or the cucumbers, squash or melons, all of these other crops we rely on the pollinators for, how do we make sure the pollinators are healthy the rest of the year".

And that work involves not only the insects that pollinate plants, but their habitats as well. One of the main pollinators are honey bees. They may be small in size, but their impact on agriculture is enormous.

However, in the United States, there are now over forty percent fewer honey bees that there were just ten years ago. So other pollinators, like bumble bees and carpenter bees, have had to step up fill their void.

There are many arguments as to what is causing the decline in the bee population, but the most logical and likely reason is the increased use of chemicals.

"They spend a lot of time working on ways to increase the pollinator's populations, how do we avoid harming the pollinators, so if you have a pollinating insect and you spray a insecticide that kills it, then you have defeated your efforts in pollination so you have to look at the pollinators and how important they are to the system" said Doctor Cline.

And that includes when you should use chemicals in your landscape or fields.

"Most bees forage when the temperature gets from fifty eight degrees, or more, and they will forage right up to twilight, when the sun starts to set, so anytime you want to apply a pesticide or herbicide, if you can put them out later in the event, that is the appropriate time to do that" said Michael Shuman, of the Columbus County Cooperative Extension Service.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and North Carolina State University have placed a new focus on agriculture pollinators.

Agriculture accounts for seventy eight billion dollars annual in the state, and is North Carolina's number one industry. By working to protect the products that need pollination, that industry will continue to grow, and all of us will be able to continue to enjoy the variety of fruits and vegetables that grow well, right here in the Tar Heel State.

For more on vegetables and fruits that require pollination, contact the Cooperative Extension Service office in your county.

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