McIntyre Farms diversified its hay-heavy operations a few years back, planting some organic alfalfa and adding pasture pigs, grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens.
But the pollinators showed up on their own.
As the McIntyre family developed a newly needed grazing program for its rolling farmland between Caldwell and Marsing, Idaho, they put in flowering plants and cover crops that attracted pollinators and other beneficial insects, like those that control pests.
“We love pollinators,” co-owner Brad McIntyre said. “And I guess we are helping other people by bringing in beneficials.”
Pollinator-friendly habitat is more common on farms these days, helping the creatures and many food producers — even those whose crops don’t rely heavily on pollinators.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service says about three-fourths of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators for plant reproduction. Thousands of species of native bees help boost crop yields, and according to some scientists, one of every three human bites of food exists due to animal pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects, as well as birds and bats. Factors contributing to many species’ decline, NRCS says, include disease, parasites, environmental contaminants and habitat loss.
James Sherman, managing director of the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership, said he sees more use of cover crops, benefiting pollinators while aiding soil health and reducing erosion. He also sees more use of permanent crops.
Integrating pollinator-friendly habitat can pay off, even when it comprises a substantial share of the food-production footprint, he said. He cited a 2006 study of canola, known to benefit from bees. Simon Fraser University researchers Lora Morandin and Mark Winston wrote that maximum profit occurred when just over 30 percent of the landscape was left uncultivated. Above 32.7 percent, declining amounts of uncultivated canola outweighed benefits from greater pollination from uncultivated land.
Sherman said many California growers emphasize sustainable-agriculture practices benefiting the environment and food production over time. Integrated pest management, which supports beneficial insects while reducing pesticide use, is an example. A generation ago, a focus on water savings led to developing drip-irrigation systems.
Washington State University entomologist David James focuses on making farms friendlier to all beneficial insects, “especially predators and parasitoids (example: certain wasps) of insect and mite pests,” he said. In the past decade, he and his team identified some 120 eastern Washington plants that effectively host insects benefiting pollinators. They narrowed the list to the best 60-plus.
The plants have been effective in food-production environments including vineyards, orchards and vegetable fields, he said. Common sagebrush had the highest average number of all beneficial insects, followed by Gray Rabbitbrush.
Oregon Department of Agriculture entomologist Sarah Kincaid of the Oregon Bee Project said the state has many examples of pollinator-friendly practices on farms, such as planting flowering trees, hedgerows and wild rose rather than “pushing” high-value crops to field margins. But such habitat also can be found adjacent to fields of more commodity-like crops, she said.
The project recognizes bee-friendly farms to “really show that agricultural production and bee protection can go hand-in-hand,” she said.
While much of Oregon agriculture is “helping to grow bees” in that many of its crops attract pollinators, innovations with habitat continue, said Andony Melathopoulos, Oregon State University Extension pollinator health specialist. For example, alkali bees pollinate some alfalfa seed crops after popping out of the salty soil optimized with help from a sub-surface irrigation pipe.
Bee scientist Ron Bitner planted orange-flowered Globe Mallow about four years ago at Bitner Vineyards west of Caldwell, Idaho, and ground-nesting Diadasia bees began appearing two years later. Sunflowers and other flowering plants on the site attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. He has replanted sagebrush, and replaced grass with bee-attracting white clover.
“It’s kind of a reservoir of pollinators I am creating,” Bitner said. Some bees travel to orchards that surround his vineyards.
At McIntyre Farms, while pollinator habitat appears in parts of the alfalfa operation where yields aren’t highest — like field bottoms and sides, and near the center point of a pivot — “all cover crops we plant for grazing have a component of flowering mixture,” McIntyre said. Permanent pasture includes some legumes.
There is little, if any, downside, though the image of a clean, sterile farm should be set aside, he said.
“It’s just a matter of finding ways to incorporate it on the farm,” McIntyre said.