Leap of faith proves pollination can be honeybee free

Bryan Danforth in orchard
Bryan Danforth, professor of entomology, inspects apple blossoms and native pollinators at Cornell Orchards, which is home to at least 26 wild bee species. Photo: Jason Koski/University Photography

As the state’s Land-Grant institution, Cornell University was born to explore science for the public good—a mission that can sometimes require a leap of faith. Just such a leap paid off this year at Cornell Orchards. While crisp apples and fresh cider are no strangers to fans of the 37-acre research and outreach site, this year’s crop provides an extra bonus for New York apple growers: proof that pollination can be done commercial honeybee free.

“This is a food security issue,” said entomology professor Bryan Danforth. “We need to know if growers can continue to produce food in the absence of honeybees.”

Populations of imported European honeybees, relied upon for centuries in American agriculture, continue to decline under pressure from an array of pathogens, parasites and other problems. After years of surveys through which Danforth’s team found more than 100 wild bee species in 20 Upstate orchards—26 species at Cornell Orchards alone—Danforth and farm manager Eric Shatt conceived of a plan to fly through this springs’ apple blossom season on the wings of wild bees alone.

While he’s quick to concede wild bees will never replace honeybees in massive agricultural settings, Danforth said research and fieldwork is proving wild bees can play a critical role in saving growers money, easing pressure on vulnerable honeybee hives, increasing sustainability and, most importantly, enhancing food security.

“If you’re an apple grower and you want to make sure you can produce apples for the next 50 years, having the insurance that you have a diverse wild pollinator fauna in and around your orchard will be important,” Danforth said. “Making this industry more profitable and at the same time demonstrating the economic benefits of conserving wild pollinator diversity is a win-win situation for New York agriculture.”