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Berries and Bees

Author: Nathan Hecht. What if farmers could plant strawberry fields that produced more strawberries while supporting the local ecology? UMN researchers are finding ways to get more berry for our buzz.

Photo: Nathan Hecht.
Local strawberries are one of the many delights of a Midwestern summer.  But for the strawberry grower, challenges include a short season and a short shelf life, along with disease and pest pressure.

In an effort to enhance local strawberry production, horticulture scientists at the University of Minnesota have been perfecting a production system that is designed to extend the strawberry season well into autumn.  And recent research is asking how this can be done in better coordination with local pollinators, such as native bees, to get even more berry for our buzz.  What if we could plant strawberry fields that benefited both the strawberry grower and the local ecology?

New research is examining this very question, exploring whether wild pollinators can be recruited to pollinate a strawberry crop, simply by planting insect-attractive flowers nearby.  Increasing on-farm floral diversity to provide resources and habitat for wild pollinating insects is not a new strategy, but the practice has been gaining popularity as evidence for yield benefits rises in scientific and grower communities.

Pollinator Farmscaping

“Pollinator farmscaping” has also received attention as a way to ensure continued pollinator presence for pollination dependent crops, given the emergence of colony collapse disorder and other threats to honey bee colonies.

Strips of flowering borage may help to recruit wild pollinators
to the strawberry field.
Photo: Nathan Hecht.
During a two-year experiment, the team planted strips of blue borage flowers (Borago officinalis) near day-neutral strawberry plots, a variety of annual strawberry plants that can be grown from June to October.  Researchers looked at strawberry fruit production and insect presence in relation to the flower strip, hypothesizing that strawberry flowers closer to the borage flower patch would receive more insect visits, be more fully pollinated, and produce bigger, higher quality strawberries.

Bigger Berries with Pollinator Habitat

Preliminary results are indicating a possible economic and ecological benefit to planting borage flowers alongside strawberries.  Within 50 feet of the borage flower patch, individual berry weights tend to be higher than those berries harvested at the end of the row.  And heavier berries means heavier profits.

The borage patch hosts a wide variety of insects, including bumble bees, honey bees, native bees, flies, and other nectar-loving insects.  Most of the insects found on strawberry flowers are either small native bees or hover-flies, a family of flies that are often bee mimics.  Providing additional habitat and resources for these and other pollinators may benefit a strawberry grower’s bottom line, while also helping to support and conserve wild pollinator populations.

Native sweat bees (Halictidae) may be important
pollinators for strawberries. Photo: Nathan Hecht.
While the benefits of planting flower strips for pollinators are often highly context dependent, planting patches of annual flowers that attract wild pollinators can be a cheap, low-risk way to experiment with supporting crop pollination, and therefore production, in your fruit fields.  This practice can be beneficial for other pollinator-dependent crops such as blueberries and raspberries.  

Choosing Pollinator Plants

When considering what to plant, research flower species that will be attractive to your crop’s primary pollinators, compete well with weeds, and ideally provide an additional crop (borage flowers are edible!).  The Xerces Society ( has many resources available to help design and integrate these sorts of practices on farms.

Author: Nathan Hecht, M.S. student in Applied Plant Sciences. 

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