Land & Environment

Bumble Bees Boost Local Gardening says USU Entomologist

Demand for locally grown produce is surging: health and environment-conscious consumers want affordable fresh fruits and vegetables year-round but are concerned about the energy and cost required to ship these delicacies from long-growing regions to colder climes.

One solution is use of high tunnel gardening — also known as “hoop house” gardening — which uses unheated greenhouses often constructed of PVC pipe and covered in plastic. 

“These types of greenhouses are favored by both professional and amateur growers,” says Jamie Strange, USDA-ARS research entomologist and adjunct assistant professor in USU’s Biology Department. “They work well for tomatoes, peppers and berries — high anti-oxidant foods favored by today’s consumers.”

But many pollinators, including honeybees, don’t perform especially well in hoop houses.

“Honey bees tend to fly to the top of the plastic-enclosed structures and try to escape,” Strange says. “Bumble bees, on the other hand, seem perfectly content in the structures and are particularly efficient pollinators for the types of crops well-suited to greenhouses.”

An added bonus: Bumble bees tolerate shipping well.  

“You can build your hoop house, order a bumble bee colony online and you’re on your (gardening) way,” Strange says.

He and colleagues at the USDA-ARS Pollinating Insect Research Unit — known as the “Bee Lab” — along with USU colleagues, are studying bumble bees which, in the wild, appear to be on the decline. The cause remains unclear. The researchers suspect a combination of forces, including pathogens, intensive agriculture and other shifts in land use, as well as climate change.

“It’s probably a suite of factors,” Strange says. “And there could be causes that we haven’t yet identified.”

Even so, the fuzzy bumble bee, bred in labs such as the USU-based Bee Lab, offers promise for locally grown gardening efforts.

“It’s a niche market that’s growing in popularity,” Strange says. “Humans can manually pollinate hothouse plants, but bumble bees are much better at it.”

During National Pollinator Week June 18-22, the USDA Bee Lab and USU Extension are offering a Bumble Bee Workshop. The gathering is slated for Wednesday, June 20, at the Poisonous Plants Research Lab, 1150 East 1400 North, just north of USU’s Logan campus. For information, visit the lab’s website.

Related links:

Contact: Cory Stanley, 801-388-5433, cory.stanley@usu.edu

Contact: Jamie Strange, 435-797-7151, james.strange@ars.usda.gov

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

research entomologist Jamie Strange

At the USDA-ARS bee lab near the USU campus, research entomologist Jamie Strange displays a tomato flower with bruising - evidence of bumble bee pollination. Bumble bees, he says, are particularly well-suited for greenhouse pollination.

working in the bee lab, Jon Koch and Jamie Strange

USU biology doctoral student Jon Koch, left, and Strange study bumble bees at the USDA-ARS bee lab near the USU campus. In the wild, the pollinators are on the decline.

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