Minnesota researchers eye crops that feed bees, make money

A bumble bee fed on an echium plant.
A bumble bee fed on an echium plant at a USDA research plot near Morris, Minn., on July 31, 2015. USDA scientists say small plots of these plants can provide critical food for bees and be an additional source of income for farmers.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Drive across western Minnesota in the summer and you see an endless sea of green. Corn and soybean fields dominate the landscape.

But just outside of Morris, next to a corn field, small plots of brilliant purple, blue and orange flowers stand in sharp contrast. Calendula, echium and borage are among roughly a dozen flowering plants researchers are testing here at a U.S. Department of Agriculture site.

On a recent sunny afternoon, they are a magnet for insects.

A patch of camelina ready for harvest
This patch of camelina bloomed early in the spring, and now its seeds are ready for harvest in a USDA test plot near Morris. The seeds are crushed to produce a cooking oil.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"There's a bumblebee right there, there's a butterfly. There's just a wealth of everything," USDA Research Technician Dean Peterson says he walks the tract with a visitor.

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There's no doubt these plants are great for bees and butterflies. But they may also attract farmers.

Peterson says these crops can all serve a dual purpose — food for bees and a harvest of seeds that provide various kinds of oil.

"The initial idea then is to keep flowers on the landscape, but also these oilseeds are valuable for products in and of themselves," he adds.

For example, calendula oil can replace petroleum in paints, borage oil has health benefits similar to fish oil, and echium is used in the cosmetic industry for anti-wrinkle creams.

USDA agronomist Frank Forcella
USDA agronomist Frank Forcella held an echium plant as he explains the plants value to bees at a USDA test plot near Morris on July 31, 2015.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

USDA Research Agronomist Frank Forcella says echium could bring more money per acre than corn, but it will never replace cornfields.

"All the wrinkles in the world could probably be solved by 100,000 acres of this stuff, so we don't need millions of acres of echium. But just an acre or two in every county in Minnesota would provide a heck of a lot of pollen and nectar for honeybees."

That alone would be great news for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. The creatures these days are in trouble partly because changes in agriculture and land use have reduced the number of flowering plants on the landscape, leaving them with less food.

Researchers are analyzing the oil production of these crops, but they are also calculating the energy the plants provide to bees. They are also testing a variety of crops that would provide blooming flowers from early spring to late fall.

Echium is a plant that provides high amounts of pollen and nectar for bees. USDA researchers say oil from the seeds is used in anti-wrinkle creams.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Dan Whitney, president of the 300-member Minnesota Honey Producers Association, knows firsthand how the changing agriculture landscape leaves bees hungry and slashes honey production.

"About 20 years ago we were about 100 pounds a hive, and our yields now are probably 50 pounds a hive," he said. "That's how much habitat, how many flowers we've lost."

Bees face many challenges, poor nutrition, disease and pesticides. Whitney believes pesticides and disease are hitting bees harder because they suffer from malnutrition. He says there's not a single easy solution.

"We'll never have enough acreage of nectar producing flowers on the landscape to produce big honey crops again unless the agriculture picture changes and we get back to diversified farming and you know a few milk cows and three or four crops," said Whitney, who acknowledges that's unlikely to happen.

Still, he says this effort to introduce new alternative crops gives him hope. "Maybe one day I'll drive over a hill and see a patch of this here and there, and it just kind of all adds into the big picture of health for our bees."

The USDA researchers aren't sure how farmers will accept the new pollinator friendly crops. But Peterson says farmers can try small plots without a big investment.

"What we're looking at is some of the areas that maybe can't grow corn and beans. The soil is poor. We're not using any specialized herbicides, we're not using any specialized fertilizer rates. It can almost grow like a weed."

And, he notes, anyone can plant these crops as a way to help bees even if they don't harvest the oil seeds.