Bees, Berries and Borage

Nathan Hecht, Graduate Research Assistant, U of MN Dept of Horticultural Science

Steve Poppe, WCROC Sr. Horticulture Scientist

Insects on strawberry flower

Insect visitation pollinates strawberry flowers and helps improve berry quality.

Bees need flowers and flowers need bees.  This is one of the simplest lessons of the natural world.  But Nathan Hecht, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, wants to know more about what this means for Minnesota food production, and is asking how we as a society might take better advantage of the natural world around us, to create agricultural landscapes that are both more productive and sustainable.  

Hecht’s research examines the question of whether wild pollinators can be recruited to pollinate a strawberry crop, simply by planting insect-attractive flowers nearby.  An if you plant it, they will come, sort of strategy. Providing resources and habitat for wild pollinating insects is not a new strategy, but the practice has been gaining popularity as evidence of the benefits for food crops rises in the scientific community.  “Pollinator farmscaping” has also received attention as a way to ensure continued pollinator presence for pollination dependent crops, given the emergence of colony collapse disorder and other threats to honey bee colonies.

His field research takes place at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, MN, where he works with Steve Poppe, lead horticultural scientist of WCROC, to manage a two-year pollinator farmscaping experiment.   

Borage and berries

Borage flowers planted next to strawberry fields may help facilitate pollination

The team planted a patch of Borage (Borago officinalis), a blue star-shaped, edible herb on one end of three plots of day-neutral strawberries, a variety of annual strawberry plants that can be grown from June to October.  Hecht collects data on strawberry fruit production and insect presence, and examines how these variables change with distance from the flower patch. His hypothesis? Strawberry flowers closer to the borage flower patch will receive more insect visits, be more fully pollinated, and produce bigger, higher quality strawberries.  

While the team only has data from the first year of the experiment, results are indicating a possible economic and ecological benefit to planting borage alongside strawberries.  Within 50 feet of the borage flower patch, individual berry weights tend to be higher than those berries harvested at the end of the row. And heavier berries means heavier profits.  The borage patch hosts a wide variety of insects, including bumble bees, honey bees, native bees, flies, and other nectar loving insects. Most of the insects found on strawberry flowers in Hecht’s experiment are either small native sweat bees or hover flies, a family of flies that are often bee mimics.  Providing additional habitat and resources for these and other pollinators may benefit a strawberry growers bottom line, while also helping to support and conserve wild pollinator populations.