July 2017
Farm & Field

Alabama Is Buzzing

Auburn researchers are studying and promoting Alabama’s native bee populations and their tremendous agricultural value.

 

Dr. Charles Ray, left, and Bashira Chowdhury stand in a garden on the campus of Auburn University displaying bees that can be found across Alabama.

An initiative researching Alabama’s native bee population started by Auburn University researchers has the potential to bring higher profits to Alabama’s farmers.

Pollination ecologists Bashira Chowdhury and Dr. Charles Ray have teamed up to research bees to support Alabama agriculture, biodiversity and human health.

In 2015, Chowdhury was sampling bees in the Arizona desert when she decided to pursue researching bee biodiversity in regions where information was scarce. Chowdhury researched such areas and decided Alabama would be an ideal choice because of the state’s high biodiversity.

After contacting Ray, Chowdhury made the move to Auburn where the two began the initiative to research and promote native pollinators. Chowdhury had previously been studying pollination at the University of California-Davis.

Chowdhury and Ray have been exploring the state looking for native bees and plants over the last year and a half since Chowdhury’s arrival. The initiative has already made important findings. Chowdhury and Ray are using the data they’ve collected to preserve Alabama’s biodiversity and better human well-being.

Chowdury and Ray said there are high-value crops native to North America such as American potato beans and elderberries that can be supported by Alabama’s native pollinators. The current market price for elderberries is $20 per pound. Elderberries are a common ingredient in most fruit juices.

"The United States is actually importing elderberries when farmers could be growing them as an edge crop here and profiting," Ray said.

Chowdhury and Ray agreed that farmers can utilize their nonarable land for these native edge crops.

"Every farm has nonarable land and crops such as these allow those areas to be used when they otherwise wouldn’t be," Ray said. "Alabama is rich in biodiversity so the state supports these pollinators that support plant and animal species. It’s all a part of an ongoing cycle."

Chowdhury and Ray are still in the research phase of the initiative, but said the next step is to tell farmers how to attract native bees to pollinate these high-value native crops. They’ve already visited several farms across the state looking for bees and talking with farmers.

"If you support their environment, the bees will come to you," Chowdhury said. "A lot of people go out and buy honeybees for pollination, but those aren’t always the most suitable pollinator for a specific crop as needs vary."

Chowdhury said a bee native to Alabama is the southeastern blueberry bee. This bee is an ideal pollinator for blueberry bushes and other horticultural crops. Unlike honeybees, most native bees don’t require hives and daily care as they live in underground holes.

"If I had to pick one bee for farmers to know about, it’d be the southeastern blueberry bee," Chowdhury said. "They’re excellent pollinators."

A native Alabama bee finds a flower to his liking.

 
   

Chowdhury and Ray said informing those outside their field about the benefits of pollination can be challenging.

"You want your research to actually do something," Chowdhury said. "Oftentimes our work just stays in our little community and it doesn’t get out."

According to Chowdhury, her goal is to allow farmers to produce more per plant.

"Agriculture is going to be shifting from food production to food security," Chowdhury said. "Alabama could be at the forefront of this if there is enough participation."

Chowdhury said, as the population grows, agriculture trends will shift to producing more food per plant in order to reduce the number planted, conserving land.

Chowdhury and Ray will continue their explorations studying the American potato bean more closely in the coming months and promoting an educational event called Bee Auburn that is open to the public.

The team is also working with Auburn University to make the campus bee friendly by creating ideal habitats for native bees. Chowdhury and Ray said the university could serve as an outdoor classroom for consumers.

"This project not only helps farmers but also the health of consumers," Chowdhury said. "By relying on these native pollinators, we’re utilizing resources already present, and that is good for the land and those who depend on it."

Chowdhury and Ray’s initiative is limited to Alabama, but they hope it will spread across the Southeast, making an impact on sustainable agriculture.

"Bees affect so many different things in terms of food security," Chowdhury said. "We want people to see how knowledge about pollination can feed the world."

 

Rebecca Oliver is a freelance writer from Auburn.