Mason bees are all the buzz on Virginia Beach berry farms

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Lisa Horth recently received funding from the USDA to continue her work with Mason bees.

Lisa Horth measures the growth of strawberries pollinated by Mason bees, a species that normally pollinates apples. (Photo courtesy Old Dominion University)

What would a life without bees look like? According to biologist Lisa Horth, one in three of the foods we eat would no longer be available.

Horth, an associate professor at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University, recently won a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to boost her research on the relationship between strawberries and bee pollination, with the goal of creating bigger, better berries.

Horth is one of ten Virginia grant winners announced by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday, Oct. 20. Ranging from $30,000 to $44,000 per recipient, the $393,999 in total grants is intended to enhance and improve specialty crops across the state, according to a release.

At a time when honeybee populations are increasingly susceptible to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees disappear from the hive, Horth believes alternate pollination options are essential for the agricultural industry. And what makes her work unique is her introduction of Mason bees into the mix.

Working with nine Pungo farmers, Horth has taken an unprecedented step to improve the pollination process.

“Mason bees have never been used in this way. They usually fly up to apple trees to pollinate, not down to plants,” said Horth. “The way they pollinate is not better than honeybees, it’s just different. We didn’t know if it would work, but it did.”

But Mason bees do have an edge over traditional honeybees.

Mason bees live in cocoons rather than hives.

A Mason bee home at New Earth Farm in Virginia Beach contains small parchment paper tubes to allow for easy removal of cocoons during Horth’s study. (Photo courtesy Old Dominion University)

“They are solitary bees, so they aren’t susceptible to colony collapse disorder,” said Horth. “Rather than live in hives and work together, Mason bees grow in cocoons and emerge as adults.”

And unlike honeybees, which North explained are often shipped to the country from overseas, Mason bees are native to the United States.

“We chose to pair the Mason bees with strawberries because it made the most sense from an evolutionary standpoint,” said Horth.

By introducing Mason bees into an environment already populated by honeybees, Horth has been able to increase plant pollination, as well as create some healthy competition among the species.

“I am not trying to replace honeybees, but alternative pollinators are helpful,” she said. “It’s a really big crisis when one third of your food is made possible through pollination. Imagine going to the grocery and a whole chunk of the produce section is empty.”

Horth plans to use her recent funding to focus on how bees transfer disease, through a project titled “Evaluating viral disease in honey and Mason bees on small strawberry farms in Virginia.” She hopes that by improving knowledge about the importance of bees and pollination, the food and agricultural industry can begin implementing more sustainable practices.

“It’s unrealistic to think that we can continue with our current ways,” said Horth. “Hopefully these findings will open up additional opportunities to annihilate this problem.”

 

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