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Photo: Adult honey bee on flower. Link to photo information
Scientists at ARS's North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa, encourage a range of insects—including honey bees—to pollinate the plants in their germplasm collection. Click the image for more information about it.

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Pollinators as Preservationists

By Ann Perry
May 6, 2008

At the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS) in Ames, Iowa, the scientists constantly fine-tune the professional relationships they have with their pollinating colleagues. The station's success—and the preservation of thousands of plant varieties—depend on it.

The NCRPIS maintains more than 49,000 plant accessions belonging to the National Plant Germplasm System, administered by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Station curators periodically cultivate plants from the stored seeds to generate plants and seeds that express the same distinct genetic characteristics as their parent material. Periodically replenishing stocks ensures that seeds or clonal materials contained in the NCRPIS collections are capable of germinating, or are viable.

The NCRPIS curators team up with a range of pollinators to give plants their best chance of success. The best-known—and one of the hardest-working pollinators—is the honey bee (Apis mellifera), which has been utilized at NCRPIS since 1957.

To ensure that enough honey bees are available to meet demand, ARS entomologist Steve Hanlin assembles start-up homes for queen bees and workers. If the bees take a liking to the premises and start to reproduce, Hanlin moves them into the field to begin working.

Other pollinators also pitch in. The alfalfa leaf-cutting bee (Megachile rotundata), which ARS research technician Sharon McClurg nurtures from pupa to adult, is a solitary, more docile worker that pollinates a range of plants in the collection.

Bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) also frequent the fields, pollinating ornamental plants with trumpet-like flowers. The mason bees Osmia cornifrons and Osmia lignaria are active in cool spring conditions, but after June they call it quits for the year.

At NCRPIS, house flies (Musca domestica) and blue bottle flies (Calliphora sp.) are no longer a nuisance—they're part of the work plan. McClurg has them partnering with honey bees to pollinate carrots and other plants.

Read more about this research in the May/June 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.