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Pollination Bugs

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Dr Romina Rader, from the University of New England’s School of Environmental and Rural Science, looks at the importance of many insects in pollination. Apart from the honey bees, there are many insects that are important to pollination, especially for crops. Social bees, solitary bees, some flies, beetles, moths, butterflies and thrips can all be involved in pollination depending on the location in Australia. In the tropics, for example, there can be a large variety of insects involved in pollination whereas cooler regions might have a focus on a particular insect pollinator. The landscape that surrounds the crops also plays a factor. For example, in ten mango orchard farms in Mareeba (separated by a distance of 5km from each other) some are dominated by stingless bees, some by honey bees and others by blowflies. 

Local landscape variables that contribute to this diversity include factors such as the amount of remnant vegetation around the orchard or whether there is standing water for the insect larvae.
Solitary bees need bare soil (like roads or pathways) around the orchard. These landscapes also undergo management practices like mowing, which reduces clover and dandelions and spraying, some sprays affecting particular insects. 

Did You Know? Hover flies are abundant in gardens, orchards, forests and native vegetation all over the world. People will see them when rosemary flowers and around brassicas and rocket. There are generalist hover fly species and some specialist ones. Some eat decaying plant matter in their larval stages, others are dung feeders and others eat aphids. Amazingly all hover flies change as adults and then drink nectar from flowers! 

The ultimate goal of Dr Rader’s research is to understand which particular management practices attract particular insect pollinators. There is limited knowledge in Australia of what is pollinating each crop, partly because of the huge habitat diversity from north to south and from east to west. The idea is to get growers to manipulate the environment to increase their favourite pollinators. Mango farmers in north Queensland have been bringing in road kill like kangaroos to encourage blowflies (excellent pollinators!), as have avocado farmers in the Burdekin.

 Researchers in New Zealand have been working on having standing water on dairy farms to manipulate the life cycle of the drone fly. Some farmers in the Burdekin have cattle grazing in their orchards, their dung helping to attract blowflies. Farmers do have to be careful not to bring pests into those landscapes, such as the species of blowflies that cause blowfly strike in sheep. Some insect pollinators also visit farms at different times of the day. Some flies come in the morning, bees like to come in the warmth of the middle of the day others like bibionids (see left) come late in the day or really early in the morning. Some crops have more than one insect pollinating them. In mangoes, the most efficient pollinators include the white-faced native bee, tenebrionid beetles and hoverflies.

The economic value of global food production is worth some $200-600 billion per year. The research into pollination is supported by a grant from the R&D For Profit program. It is also supported by Rural Industries Research Development, Horticulture Innovation Australia and the Ian Potter Foundation. The research is starting to look at blueberry orchards on the east coast and from 2017 will look more intensely at pollinator efficiency and how that influences crop yield and quality in a range of crops like apple, mango and melons. Insects are an important part of pollination. It is a bit like having pollination bugs installed on farms. 
Left: Sugar bag bee - Australian stingless bee (Tetragonlua carbonaria)

Did You Know? Some pollinators choose exotic plants over native ones depending on what is in the pollen. Oilseed rape, for instance, has more essential amino acids in its pollen than do field beans so honey bees prefer the oilseed rape. Other studies have shown that in some landscapes pollinators focus on all the plants in a landscape rather than a specific one. Another study showed that the honey bee pollination of an almond crop created more nutrient content (fat and vitamin E) in the fruit than self-pollinated almonds.

Dr Romina Rader was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from Dr Rader. Summary Text by Victor Barry, September 2016

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