Harmony between honeybees and soybeans focus of MSU entomologists

Contact: Meg Henderson

STARKVILLE, Miss.—In the Mississippi Delta, over 2 million acres of soybean fields stretch endlessly toward the horizon. Early in the growing season, the hum of honeybees can be heard in many of these fields.

At Mississippi State’s Delta Research and Extension Center, scientists in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station are examining the potential benefits and drawbacks of seasonally hosting honeybee colonies in the Delta’s soybean fields.

Esmaeil Amiri, MSU assistant extension/research professor who specializes in pollinators, and Jeff Gore, professor and head of the center, have found benefits for beekeepers among the Delta’s soybeans, divided into maturity groups defined by the amount of sunlight and temperature received.

“For the last 20 years, we’ve been growing mostly maturity group four and five soybeans, which are indeterminate varieties,” said Gore, a biochemistry, molecular biology, entomology and plant pathology professor. “They flower for up to eight weeks, unlike the historical determinate varieties, which would flower for only a few days.”

Savvy beekeepers have been homing in on the Delta, using its soybean fields as a resource to extend honey production season through the dearth of summer, when flowering plants are less plentiful in the mid-South.

“By June, most wildflowers are out of bloom, and beekeepers are out of options,” said Amiri, who is also a specialist with the MSU Extension Service. “Beekeepers—mostly local but a few from other states—are taking advantage of our longer flowering season, which ultimately results in the harvesting of more honey.”

Soybean growers and beekeepers have been working cooperatively since the Mississippi Farm Bureau spearheaded the Honeybee Stewardship Program about 15 years ago to address concerns about the use of pesticides in agricultural fields.

“Mississippi was one of the first states to develop a pollinator protection plan,” said Gore. “Farm Bureau brought stakeholders together to discuss concerns and come up with a set of best management practices for beekeepers and farmers who choose to share their fields with colonies.”

Gore added that one of the beekeepers’ biggest concerns was the use of pesticides, mainly neonicotinoid seed treatments and their effects on bee health.

“Through our research, we’ve been able to identify chemical-related risks—for example, pesticides dusting off the seed during planting and drifting to nearby wildflowers—and educate farmers to understand those risks and mitigate them with proper management,” he said.

Amiri added that bees are subject to a multitude of stressors, including pesticides, pests, pathogens, climate change, habitat loss and nutrition deficit. He emphasized that a strong, healthy colony can handle the stress of exposure to a pesticide much better than a colony already weakened by one or more additional stressors. Amiri’s recent research examines one of today’s most lethal stressors—the varroa mite, which transmits numerous viruses to the honeybee colony.

“The key is educating farmers and beekeepers and sharing our research with them,” said Amiri. “Many of them are up to date on the latest scientific articles, and they attend meetings and workshops to learn as much as they can to keep their bees as healthy as possible.”

Although it requires a little extra knowledge and work on their behalf, soybean farmers are reaping the benefits of the bees’ presence in their fields. Soybeans are self-pollinating, so pollinators are not required; however, many farmers welcome beekeepers and their bees because they feel their presence increases environmental sustainability on the farm. These added benefits provided by pollinators are increasing their demand for colonies.

“Our MSU research and extension faculty are doing a great job in connecting farmers and beekeepers, growing the partnership with these two very different agricultural operations,” said Gore. “We are dedicated to translating knowledge into impact on behalf of all agriculture in Mississippi.”

To learn more about the Delta Research and Extension Center, visit www.drec.msstate.edu; for more about the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, visit www.mafes.msstate.edu.

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