Scientists test methods to pollinate cranberries

Cranberry bog (WLUK file photo/Eric Peterson)

WISCONSIN RAPIDS (AP) - University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists are researching alternative methods by which growers can pollinate cranberries, including the possibility of wild bees.

"We've been concerned for quite some time about the honeybee population," Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, told the Daily Tribune Media.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that since the 1940s the number of managed honeybee colonies has dropped from 5 million to 2.5 million. The reason populations are collapsing is unknown.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, there are about 500 bee species found in the state.

The leader of the group conducting the research, Claudio Gratton, says wild bees are a possibility because they can conduct 30 percent to 50 percent of the occurring pollination.

Gratton, who also is a professor of entomology at UW-Madison, thinks that if growers plant wildflowers on the edges of fields, the diverse plants will attract native bees that will also pollinate the crops.

"Imagine going to McDonald's every day," Gratton said about trying to attract wild bees with one plant. "It's just not enough diversity of food."

However, some cranberry growers worry that bees will pollinate the new plants and not their cranberry crops.

"Cranberry flowers, themselves, don't have a lot of nectar or pollen, so one of the challenges is getting the bees in there," Lochner said.

Lochner said growers also are anxious about any resulting weeds that could possibly migrate into the cranberry marshes and affect the crops' yield.

Despite this, Gratton anticipates new wildlife in areas surrounding the crops could ultimately enhance pollination for the intended harvest.