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Modern agriculture is stressing honeybees: let’s go native

Honeybees are in trouble - a stressful lifestyle and an unhealthy diet are being compounded by mite attacks - but we needn’t panic about pollination. Australia has many native bee (and other pollinator…

Around the world, there are more than 20,000 bee species: this is Australia’s blue banded bee. Louise Docker

Honeybees are in trouble - a stressful lifestyle and an unhealthy diet are being compounded by mite attacks - but we needn’t panic about pollination. Australia has many native bee (and other pollinator) species that could be taking care of business, if we only took better care of them.

What do we mean when we talk about “bees”?

For many, “bee” means the honeybee – any species in the genus Apis, the most well-known of which is Apis mellifera, the European honeybee. It is a generalist pollinator, which means it shows little preference when it chooses flowers to forage on. It could visit (and potentially pollinate) almost any open flower in its foraging range. It is also adaptable to a wide range of environments and is capable of being “domesticated”.

Today, honeybees supply local food and pollination services to home gardeners around the world. Undomesticated honeybees are an important source of free pollination services to many farmers, while managed hives are one of the most common management inputs in commercial crop systems. Their close association with agriculture has prompted many to see honeybees as a symbol for “global food security”.

But honeybees are not the only pollinator insects. Around the world, there are more than 20,000 known bee species, over 100,000 wasps and 240,000 flies – all likely candidates for pollinating activities. There are also plenty of beetles, ants, moths and butterflies available for the role.

Unfortunately, agricultural intensification, habitat fragmentation and other environmental changes have had severe impacts on native pollinator communities globally.

Many intensive crop systems now rely heavily on “renting” honeybee hives for the crop flowering season to maintain productivity. This demand has caused parallel intensification of the honeybee (or pollination) industry. And this intensification means that a commercial honeybee now leads an itinerant existence, despite its inherently “sedentary” nature.

Today, commercial honeybees are loaded on and off trucks and shipped around the country to follow crop blooms. They are under constant physical stress, continuously adapting and re-adapting to new climates, microclimates, landscapes, and floral resources. In between jobs, they are force-fed sugar syrup or other unnatural diets, a practice that affects the health of the hive.

They are also exposed more frequently to pesticides, some of which have recently been proven to be lethal to hive survival. This lifestyle is not salubrious for the bees – it can only benefit the pests and diseases that thrive in intensively-managed, stressed communities.

Yet what choice is there, when in many places, there is little knowledge of other crop pollination options?

As has been discussed on The Conversation before, losses in our national honeybee population, managed or unmanaged, are inevitable. It is only a matter of time before Varroa destructor crosses our shores and takes its toll on our already stressed honeybee hives.

And these losses will not just affect food production. The honeybee is also essential to the future of our honey, beeswax and health industries (honey, beeswax and propolis are all valuable antibacterial substances), and it is a treasured visitor in productive home gardens, market gardens and school vegetable patches around the country.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Australia has its own diverse native bee fauna, and a myriad of other potential pollinator insects. We may not be able to stop Varroa destructor, but we can take some of the pressure off our indispensable honey-makers by turning our attention to our understudied native pollinators.

Research from other countries has established the value of native or “wildpollinators in a variety of agroecosystems. Sadly, there is very little published research into the potential for Australian crops to benefit from native pollinators. This is despite current commercial use of native stingless bees for macadamia pollination along the east coast, and successful pollination of other commercial crops from Rockhampton melons to Griffith onions.

Impacts on our honeybee industry may be inevitable, but we still have time to reduce the extent of their effects. After all, global food security starts at home. By building reliable, self-sustaining agroecosystems that incorporate the natural systems and processes around them, we can guarantee both a healthy environment and a robust food production future.

We can encourage agricultural managers to invest in permanent on-site bee populations, thereby reducing the stress on the valuable honeybee. We can also invest in more research to build our knowledge of Australian pollinators.

Experts have already highlighted the urgent need for taxonomic research into Australian bees and other pollinator insects. We also need to invest in ecological research on our pollinators including their pollination capabilities, and their interaction with local habitats, both natural and agricultural.

Most importantly, we need to come to grips with the ecological management of our agricultural landscapes to encourage native pollinators, animals that are essential to the function of both natural and managed ecosystems.

Thank you to Steve Maginnity for information on native bee crop pollination services.

Join the conversation

45 Comments sorted by

  1. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    This is a great site if your want to learn more about native Bees

    w w w .aussiebee.com.au/abol-current.html

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  2. Bazzio Newton

    retired hurt at game of life

    How terrible it is that Native Australian Bees are only available as a commercial commodity @ about $450 per hive. Either that or hives must be stolen from bushland ~ this in order to ensure their survival, for goodness sake!
    I've enquired & searched for two years now to no avail in my attempts to encourage or adopt a Trigona carbonaria native bee colony, however if you aint got the dough, you won't get no bees ~ and though my motives are purely conservationally ultruistic, that, it seems, is but another commercial opportunity to be cashed-in on. Sad.
    The Spirit of Ned Kelly lives on . . .

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  3. Riddley Walker

    .

    That is very interesting. It wasn't clear in the article - are Australian Native bees affected by varroa destructor?

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    1. Manu Saunders

      Research Associate at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Riddley Walker

      I haven't found any published research on this - I have heard there is a possibility that our native bees could be capable of fighting off the Varroa mite, but I am not sure whether this has been proven. The Varroa is a pest of honey bee species, and our native bees are in a completely different genus/family to the honey bee, so it may be true! If anyone knows more about this I'd love to hear from them! :)

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  4. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    i don't see why farmers don't maintain their own heehives on site. It could be incorporated into another income stream.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Because you are talking about a specialist skill, which is another skill on top of all the other skills they need. Plus economies of scale would mean you would end up spending too much time raising a small number of bees, rather than doing the real work of farming.

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    2. Bazzio Newton

      retired hurt at game of life

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Native bees take care of themselves Tim ~ there's no need for anything other than the colony & reliable food sources.
      The way it stands, commercial apiarists grab every native colony they find while putting their Apis hives in national parks and then lease them out to farmers. It's all about the money, honey!

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  5. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Thanks for discussing this issue. All too often when CCD is discussed they blame one aspect or talk about only one bee species or pretend that bees are the only pollinators.

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  6. Ewen Peel

    Farmer

    A good article highlighting how bees and Agriculture need to exsist together.
    Apart from the ovoius issue with insecticides, how do bees cope with other Ag chemicals? eg herbicides.
    I know in our case we have almost eliminated insecticide use and while growing intensive crops such as fruit or veg it is easier to do, I have noticed a lot more bees and mites in the crops at different times.
    Choosing the Integrated Pest Management system has certainly helped the wildlife in the paddock and the awareness now of pest thresholds is a lot greater now by both farmers and agronomists than ever before.
    I have seen more swarms on the move this year than ever before, i presume they are mostly native. I hope this is a good thing and an indicator that their population is healthy.

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  7. Chris Strudwick

    Human

    I don't know where to start on this one. Different pollinators have different characteristics and very few can come close to the honeybee as a reliable and efficient pollinator for crop plants. Bees have also co-evolved with our exotic introduced crops in a way that Australian native pollinators have not. Taking the almond industry as an example, there is a huge short-term demand for pollination that would totally overwhelm static populations of native pollinators. Agriculture is not a natural system…

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    1. Katja Hogendoorn

      University of Adelaide

      In reply to Chris Strudwick

      Chris, you raise a lot of good points. However, it is impossible to generalise. Native bees can pollinate some crops very well, but won't do much for others.

      Almonds are an example where native bees won't do much: they flower in winter and are grown in relatively cool areas. Most native bees hibernate during that time.
      Having said that, native bees do increase yield of canola, cotton, seed lucerne, several pulses and a very broad range of horticultural crops, some of which are not pollinated…

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    2. Chris Strudwick

      Human

      In reply to Katja Hogendoorn

      Agreed a range of pollinators, where available, will likely do a better job than a single pollinator. Honeybees are certainly not the best pollinator for every crop, macadamia being but one example. However, honeybees have a lot of advantages in being highly systematic and in being generalists, whereas other efficient pollinators tend to be specialists. More important for our increasingly industrialised agriculture, they can be provided at high numerical densities over the period when they are needed…

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    3. Katja Hogendoorn

      University of Adelaide

      In reply to Chris Strudwick

      Chris, there are specialists and generalists among native bees. You cannot generalise and state that all are specialists.

      The same species of halictine bee can be found on a range as diverse as canola, carrot, lucerne, leek, tea tree and tomato. Same for blue-banded bees.

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    4. Chris Strudwick

      Human

      In reply to Katja Hogendoorn

      Sorry Katja, nowhere have I stated that all native bees are specialists nor do I believe my comments could be interpreted that way. I am fully aware that both generalists and specialists exist. It doesn't anyway influence the main points I am trying to make: a) that static populations of native pollinators - bees and others - are highly unlikely in most cases to be able to service the pollination needs of modern agriculture, which are often large and transient; and b) non-honeybee pollinators are themselves globally under threat and in decline.

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    5. Katja Hogendoorn

      University of Adelaide

      In reply to Chris Strudwick

      Chris, no-one was suggesting we can do without honeybees either.

      When varroa comes in, the large number of farmers that now rely on feral honeybees will need to pay for managed hives. These will be in short supply.

      Farmers that have looked after their native vegetation, diversified by growing different crops on smaller scales, planted windbreaks with native plants, chose no till and used insecticides judiciously will need less managed hives.

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  8. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    One agricultural sector that has a serious interest in native bees is macadamia farming. Macadamias have tiny tiny little flowers that defy easy pollination by plump honey bees.

    So 20 years ago a mate of mine who runs a macadamia farm in northern NSW bought a hive of natives (Trigona carbonaria) and saw his pollination rate (and yield) improve by 40%. And the honey is superb. But he can't take too much without risking the hive survival over winter.

    Moreover he noticed a steady improvement in the health and density of his surrounding bushland. No data - purely subjective but he began to notice a dramatic increase in the number of pea flower species in the understorey. Trees and shrubs were germinating all over the place.

    Not a bad investment at all.

    Nice to know that some problems have very simple answers.

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    1. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      The macadamia case you cite is interesting. Where I live, we have plenty of both wild and hives of honey bees as well as plenty of old native eucalypts with hollows harboring native bees. I am specializing in growing high value timber trees, both native and exotic. The interesting thing is that there are exotic trees that only native bees and wasps pollinate. Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album) is a prime example along with African Mahogany, both Khaya senegalensis and K. nyasica, just to mention a few. I have never seen European honey bees pollinating any of these. I suspect that Queensland Maple (Flindersia brayleyana), West Indian Cedar (Cedrela odarata) and Indian Pink Cedar (Acrocarpus fraxinifolius) are in the same category, using only native insects for pollination. Unfortunately, I can't be certain as the flowers are too high to observe without serious optical magnification, but, when they are in flower, there is a visual absence of honey bees as far as my old eyes can see.

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    2. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      What an excellent thing to be doing Mike ... serious long term investment ... something for the grandchildren. And a lot prettier than a statement from the super fund.

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    3. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Thanks Peter. I bore a lot of farmers about the value of timber as windbreaks for cropping areas and pastures. The end game is sustainable harvesting of these windbreaks when you look at the price of a cubic metre of high grade furniture timber there is no loss in productivity per hectare of farm. Also has a lot of environmental benefits such as supporting the native birds, bees and a wide variety of animals.

      There I go again on my hobby-horse.

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    4. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      p.s. Peter , The species I mentioned are not so long term. Someone who lives for 70 years could have three rotations of timber harvesting in their lifetime here in the coastal tropics and two in a lot of inland areas. I am beginning to harvest some species at 10 years but most start at around 15 years.

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    5. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Oh that's much more attractive as an investment then Mike - even aside from the other benefits (not least on your neighbours' water table).

      Are you getting anyone to monitor your operation from a sciencey/economic perspective? Sounds like a very interesting means of diversifying a farming system. Should be written up and promoted I reckon.

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    6. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      I cannot hear too much about working with the natural environment instead of imposing upon it. You get up on that hobby horse and go for it.

      Makes sense to establish static colonies of native bees as well decreasing the need to continually re-site European honeybees. Creating a range of pollination options helps to achieve adaptable agriculture as climate alters.

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    7. Rachel Dawson

      ecologist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Have you read "The Untrained Environmentalist - How an Australian grazier brought his barren property back to life" by John Fenton, 2010, Allen & Unwin? Fifty years ago he set about restoring the property near Hamilton, Western Victoria by planting trees, re-instating wetlands and creating wildlife reserves, while still running the sheep. There's a section on trees for harvesting later on, lots of monitoring from a science/economics perspective but nothing about bees!!

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    8. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, I guess we are getting a bit off topic here, but I hope the moderator would bear with me this once. The systems I employ have been around for a while and I mostly employ standard forestry practice. Some of the things I do I learned from my stepfather who was a great bushman who understood the country in all its diversity from a practical standpoint. These things are not in textbooks or just coming into recognition.

      If you are interested to know more, I would give the moderator permission to release my email address to you only.

      Back to native bees, my neighbor has encouraged them into a box with 6 cells. Starting with one colony he collected from a hollow branch that came down in a storm several years ago, all 6 cells with only one entrance to each are now filled.

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    9. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      I'm sure native vegetation and variety is the healthiest option for native and other pollinators. Macadamias have evolved alongside our native bees, making them a great match. Unfortunately many of our food crops are introduced species and rely heavily on introduced honey bees. Around here we have both and while the native bees do visit the umbeliferas and seem to love basil flowers, the honey bee can more often be seen in the vegetable patch and the fruit orchard.
      Honey bee colonies which are used…

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    10. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      I'd be most interested Mike ... you can get to me on my name (one word all lower case) at hotmail dot com.

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    11. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Also makes for very expensive pears Suzy or very poor and busy farmers. Probably both.

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    12. Robert Attila

      Business Analyst

      In reply to Rachel Dawson

      Or Natural Sequence Farming.
      NSF is recognised as a viable solution to environmental regeneration. I saw an ABC doco a few yrs ago on it.

      "The method involves implementing major earthworks on a given area of land that has been devastated by deforestation and general agricultural activities, to emulate the role of natural watercourses in an effort to reverse salinity, slow erosion and increase soil and water quality to enable native vegetation to regenerate and restore the riparian zone."

      None other than Gerry Harvey provided support for this process that works with nature not against it with stunning results.

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  9. Don McArthur

    Retired educator at McArthur Park Apiary

    All very nice Manu, however the agricultural industry has moved on. You would be aware that the almond orchards require over 100,000 bee hives every year. Your article suggests by implication that we can live without almonds. Almonds are only one of many crops that require huge numbers of bees. Personally I would like to see a move away from monoculture agriculture, but that's just not going to happen. All of our domestic animals were wild at some stage and I cannot see us going back to hunter gatherers. Bees are definitely under stress when you move them and keeping large numbers in a limited area also has it's problems but it's all part of intensive agriculture management. NB Varroa destructor currently does not affect native bees but it has been shown to have mutated and jumped species.

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  10. Jon Brodie

    Research scientist

    It's likely native bees are just as susceptible to notorious insecticides like imidicloprid as are honey bees so we can expect effects are taking place now in areas of high imidicloprid use but, of course, no monitoring of effects is going on. We find 'significant' concentrations of imidicloprid in all waters downstream of areas where it is in high use in cropping on the Queensland coast. Australia does not have a water quality guideline for imidicloprid but the concentrations we find are in excess at times of the Canadian guideline. As far as I know no monitoring of imidicloprid is taking place in terrestrial environments in Queensland. We'll know about the adverse effects, as usual, when its too late to manage.

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  11. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Aren't there also a lot of crops that don't require insects for pollination?

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to wilma western

      Leafy things Ms W. Rooty things as well. But seedy and fruity things - cereals, grains, tomatoes, apples and the like all need a hand or a foot from some bug or another.

      But it's no real exaggeration to say we depend on insects for the overwhelming majority of our food.

      So be nice to them.

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    2. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, I can only speak with a degree of authority in regard to my own speciality, trees. There a fair few species that will self pollinate. Amongst these, some of the most common are of the Eucalyptus and Corymbia genus. Even isolated trees far from pollinators will bear viable seeds. Dedicated nurserymen will not touch this sort of seed that has been "selfed" as it more often gives rise to poor genetics which is often expressed as a badly shaped tree or one with lack of vigour. So with trees, we need a broad range of specimens within the species in the locality and a broad range of pollinators. Up the mighty native bee!

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    3. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to wilma western

      Wilma, there are a lot of plants tuned to pollination via the wind and do not rely on insects exclusively. Ones that come to mind are of the Pinus genus though there are many others. Date palms, pasture grasses and Macadamia can be wind pollinated, but as Peter Ormonde pointed out, pollination increased in Macadamias with the advent of introducing native bees.

      I never cease to wonder at the pollinators. I have seen a very small beetle working over Sandalwood flowers. It looked to my eye very much like a Lyctus beetle. If it was, it raises an interesting paradox. Lyctus beetles lay their eggs in the bark of damaged trees and the larvae bore into the tree. They are often called pinhole borers. There are a lot of species of trees that are resistant to Lyctus and Sandalwood is one. So here we have a pest, if this is the case, and the very same beetle is pollinating my sandalwoods.

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    4. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to wilma western

      The below figures are taken from a 2-year old Futures presentation on the subject of bees. It shows common crops most dependent on honey bees.
      I also added a few points to the bottom of the little known or acknowledged ecoservice provided by native and honey bees to our agricultural sector and economy.

      Commodity Responsiveness (%)
      Almond 100
      Blueberry 100
      Apple 100
      Cucumber 100
      Apricot 70
      Kiwi 80
      Avocado 100
      Pumpkin 100…

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    5. Robert Attila

      Business Analyst

      In reply to wilma western

      Corn is a classic wind pollinated plant, just make sure they are planted close to each other, in a block rather than a line.

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  12. Manu Saunders

    Research Associate at Charles Sturt University

    Thanks for the interesting discussion! Just to clarify a few points people are raising - some plants/crops are wind-pollinated, but the number of plants that can rely solely on wind pollination is very small, and these are mostly cereal/grain crops and grasses.

    Many other plants have some ability to be wind pollinated, but if insects/birds/animals get involved, their yields will be much higher - this is why pollinators are necessary to commercial agriculture. Then there are the plants that absolutely…

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Manu Saunders

      Well said. The key to sustainable agriculture is diversification in approaches, practices and even planting - remember when farmers would rotate their crops?

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  13. Bob from Canberra

    in his anecdotage

    >Macadamias have evolved alongside our native bees, making them a great match. Unfortunately many of our food crops are introduced species and rely heavily on introduced honey bees. <
    I thought that macadamias were the only native plant that is being commercially grown. Are there others?

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Bob from Canberra

      There are few I know of Bob - quandongs, finger limes, warragul greens and a few culinary herbs - including the absolutely delicious Backhousia citriadora ... a lemon sherbet fruit-tingley flavour.

      But the major obstacles are low productivity, small size fruit, variability and poor understandings of optimum growing techniques. There is also a limited (but improving) understanding in the market - far and away specialised restaurants at the moment.

      Big potential but a great deal of work must…

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    2. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Bob from Canberra

      Hi Bob, that was my point, most of our food plants were brought from overseas and not native - hence the need for pollinators suited and interested in them. I added a list of common crops above to show how many of our normal supermarket display rely on insect pollinators.

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    3. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Katja Hogendoorn

      Thanks Katja.

      Now that had me stumped ... buzz pollination ... then I remembered a bit about sonic vibrations... not necessarily dependent on vibration but definitely more productive when it's about.

      There's a useful short entry in the font of all human knowledge: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buzz_pollination

      Those bush tomatoes are apparently just swarming with vitamin C ... make them bigger!

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