Entomologist Matthew O’Neal says they started looking into the issue after noticing honeybee hives were shrinking during the fall months.
“From about June until the first week of August, honeybee hives would gain weight, but over the course of a two-year study, they lost weight starting in the first week of August,” O’Neal says. “That’s really early given that they have to eat the food that they make from foraging on flowers to get through the winter.”
O’Neal says the research now shows prairie plants might provide the fall food the bees need.
“We showed the USDA in a very preliminary study that if we moved hives from soybean fields to prairie, not only did their weight loss stop but they regained weight,” O’Neal says.
They now want to take a longer look to see if prairies are a viable solution to help honeybees.
“The focus of our next study is to see just how much weight they can gain and if that weight gain can help them survive other sources of stress, like exposure to insecticides that they might get in crop fields like soybeans where farmers may need to spray insecticide,” O’Neal says.
He says what makes prairies remarkable is that they have a variety of native plants that produce flowers into the late summer and even into the fall, which can be a source of forage for honeybees. Those bees forage for pollen, but their main food source is nectar in plants.
Beekeepers have used clover as a primary source of forage for honey bees and very few are believed to have used prairie flowers as a substitute.
There are hundreds of native bee species in the U.S. and many of them are threatened. The experts say bees are vital to our food supply and to the economy of agricultural states like Nebraska.
O’Neal is an associate professor of entomology at Iowa State University.