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Wildflower Strips Bring Farmers Extra Money While Helping Native Bees

Heriades bee on Erigeron speciosus

Wildflower planted next to crop fields can benefit farmers via both increased pollination services from native bees (such as this Heriades sp. bee on a Erigeron speciosus flower), leading to greater crop yield, and wildflower seed-sales revenue, all while helping to conserve and foster native bee populations. A cost-benefit analysis by researchers at Montana State University suggests retails sales of wildflower seeds can provide an early additional benefit to farmers while the more long-term benefits of increased pollination and crop yields materialize over time. (Photo credit: Casey Delphia, Ph.D.)

By John P. Roche, Ph.D.

Honey bees in North America help pollinate crops. But honeybees (Apis mellifera) are non-native, and there are concerns over their population status as a result of disease. Also, it is risky to rely on only one pollinator species, so encouraging the health and diversity of native bee species is essential for adequate pollination for stable agriculture.

One practice that can bolster native bee populations is planting strips of wildflowers next to crops; however, a study in 2017 found that, without incentives, few farmers choose to plant flower strips. The key to adoption, therefore, is adequate incentives. To examine a possible incentive for the use of flower strips, Casey Delphia, Ph.D., Kevin O’Neill, Ph.D., and Laura Burkle, Ph.D., at Montana State University investigated the cost-benefit ratio for farmers that plant strips of wildflowers next to crops and then sell the wildflower seeds. Their findings are reported in a new study published in July in the Journal of Economic Entomology.

wildflower strip

A wildflower strip such as this one next to a crop field in a farm in southwestern Montana can benefit farmers via both increased pollination services from native bees (leading to greater crop yield) and wildflower seed-sales revenue, all while helping to conserve and foster native bee populations. The strip pictured here is made up of 1-square-meter blocks, each planted with a different flower species, as part of a study by researchers at Montana State University. (Photo credit: Casey Delphia, Ph.D.)

In their study, Delphia and colleagues examined all the economic costs and benefits of planting wildflower strips and of selling the resulting seeds. Costs for establishing flower strips included materials and the labor costs for planting, weeding, harvesting, and processing. Benefits were the payments received from selling the seeds.

Farmers also benefit from greater crop yields resulting from increased pollination supplied by an increase in native bees, but this benefit can take three or more years to be realized. “Because of this,” Delphia says, “we explored this more active approach of treating the flower strips as the commodity, serving a dual-function of providing seed sales and resources for bees.”

Delphia and her team conducted their study on four diversified vegetable farms in southwestern Montana over a period of three years. They planted native perennial wildflowers in strips next to crop fields, using nine different species of native wildflowers of a variety of colors to attract a wide array of native bee species. Each wildflower strip had 27 1-square-meter replicates. Of the 27 replicates, three replicates of each of the nine flower species were planted.

The cost-benefit analysis revealed that all of the farms would make a profit by selling seeds retail but none would profit if they sold seeds wholesale. And the flower strips definitely helped the native bees: The researchers observed 202 species of native bees on their study farms, and most of these species used the wildflower strips to collect nectar or pollen.

The study analyzed the costs and benefits over three years. The net profit from seeds would be even higher over time because the flowers planted were perennials, which would continue to provide seeds for years after planting. Wildflower strips also provide the benefits of reducing erosion and increasing populations of the natural enemies of insect pests. And the use of wildflower strips may also provide its primary motivating benefit: By increasing native bees, the flowers lead to increased pollination, which in turn increases crop yields.

“I think the most important finding is that we provided evidence of another potential economic benefit of wildflower strips,” Delphia says. “It’s important to demonstrate all the economic benefits—and drawbacks—of planting flower strips if we want to increase adoption of this strategy. Furthermore, we have helped bees using native plants, which promotes native plant conservation in addition to wild bee conservation.”

A lot of variability in profit was found among the four farms. Delphia says, “Much of the variability we saw was due to differences between farms in climatic conditions, weed pressure, and farm management practices; all factors we could not change.” But, some processes could be optimized, including focusing on growing flowers with higher-priced seeds and refining weeding and harvesting methods where possible.

There are important potential practical applications from her results. “One application that I envision,” Delphia says, “would be the development of partnerships between seed producers, seed retailers, plant nurseries, and farmers that support pollinator conservation on farmlands but also provide economic benefits through immediate sale of wildflower seeds and through increases in crop yield via enhanced pollination services. Those seeds might also be used in habitat restoration programs.”

Casey Delphia

Casey Delphia, Ph.D., samples native bees on a flower strip on a farm in southwestern Montana. Wild bees are important to pollination of crops, and their pollination increases crop yields. Delphia and her colleagues found that the retail sale of seeds of wildflowers planted in strips next to crops could yield a profit, thus providing an added incentive for adoption of flower strips to help conserve native bees. (Photo credit: Kelly Gorham)

When asked about future research plans, Delphia says, “I think the most important next steps would be to try this seed sales approach in different regions of the country and on a larger scale with the goal of wholesale seed-sales. Our study was not originally designed to examine large-scale plantings with wholesale seed sales, which we think is why we did not see a profit from selling seeds wholesale. If seed sales are shown to be profitable on a larger commercial scale, I think we would have a better idea of the potential wide-scale implementation of our approach.”

One clear practical hurdle that needs to be overcome is having enough market demand for the wildflower seeds. “I think there is ever-growing public interest in using perennial wildflowers to support pollinators in a variety of applications,” Delphia says. “I also think that marketing seeds by indicating they come from farms that are actively engaged in pollinator conservation may be one way to increase the market for wildflower seeds.”

Initiatives to conserve and increase populations of native bees are being adopted throughout the U.S., with approaches including use of forest buffers along streams, wind breaks next to fields, and rows of trees or shrubs in crop fields (i.e., alley cropping). The use of wildflower strips shows promise as one component of a unified strategy to increase profits while simultaneously increasing diversity and ecological stability.

John P. Roche, Ph.D., is an author, biologist, and educator dedicated to making rigorous science clear and accessible. Director of Science View Productions and Adjunct Professor at the College of the Holy Cross, Dr. Roche has published over 200 articles and has written and taught extensively about science. For more information, visit https://authorjohnproche.com.

1 Comment »

  1. I love this idea and the encompassing research. How are bees affected if they are drawn to farms that use pesticides? I understand the native flowers will attract pollinators, but aren’t they harmed when they pollinate chemically treated crops? Also, an effort could be made by the university to purchase the seeds from participating farms to redistribute to environmental agencies in habitat restoration programs. I assume it would be a challenge for farmers to sell seeds retail.

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