Monday, July 9, 2012

Christmas Tree Pollinator Study

Christmas tree growers might not realize that the diverse mixes of groundcovers growing underneath their trees provide important habitat for pollinators. Pollinators include butterflies, moths, beetles, bees, wasps, and even some small mammals and hummingbirds.
Syrphid fly feeding on False Dandelion
They are responsible for an estimated 75% of the average food products that we eat each and every day. Pollinators worldwide are in decline; habitat loss and degradation, pollution, loss of native plants, diseases, climate change, pesticide misuse and overuse, and genetically modified crops are linked to the ongoing decline of pollinator species.

It’s an often-overlooked fact that tree farmers that encourage native weeds and groundcovers among their tree fields are supporting these critically important creatures. In the tree field, pollinators feed on the nectar and pollen in flowering weeds, and they make their nests, often in the soil but occasionally in dead branches or decaying stumps. All of these are very positive interactions in the tree field. The situation becomes more complicated when growers reach IPM thresholds that determine a need to control insect pests with pesticide applications. Just about any pesticide, organic or otherwise, is toxic to bees. So tree growers have a very difficult situation to deal with: treating for insect pests that damage their trees while also wanting to protect pollinator populations.

To help find solutions to this perplexing problem, Dr. Jill Sidebottom and county agents are working on a pollinator study specifically looking at tree farms in Watauga, Ashe, Allegheny, Avery and Mitchell counties.  The study will follow these farms for an entire year, taking data on the mix of specific plants growing under the trees, what’s flowering and when, and what types of pollinators and other insects are observed. This study is unique in that the majority of the fieldwork is not actually focused on the Christmas trees... but rather what’s growing underneath them! Agents and specialists walk slowly through the field keeping their eyes peeled for flying insects, and whirling a canvas sweep net through the weeds to survey what pollinators are present. The contents of the net are then emptied into a plastic bag where the insects can be identified.

The goal of this study is to develop best management practices specific to the Christmas tree industry on pollinator protection and conservation. It will also help educate tree growers and beekeepers alike on how to best work together to sustain pollinators.

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