A chilling effect: How farms can help pollinators survive the stress of climate change

This story was originally published by the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

In 2002, Deirdre Birmingham and her husband, John Biondi, bought a 166-acre farm in southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless region. On a portion of that land — once used to raise cattle and grow feed crops like corn, soybeans, and alfalfa — they planted apple and pear trees to make fermented ciders. On a larger, spring-fed portion, abutting the orchard and en route to meadow and oak forest, they seeded in Indian and June and bluestem grasses, echinacea and bergamot, spiderwort and blazing stars, restoring a portion of the region’s native prairie. They knew this would benefit beleaguered wild bees but they weren’t fully aware how this decision to rewild their landscape would help the farm, too.

Two decades later, on June 14, 2022, the weather turned unseasonably hot. After tedious cold and wet weeks, temperatures swelled throughout the morning until they hit the high 90 degrees F. “We had this record-breaking heat and the trees just fast-forwarded into blossom, and dandelions and so many other things also went into bloom,” Birmingham said. “I could see wild bees on our pears and I thought, they just have tons of work to do, and a lot of choices” of flowers to visit. She worried they’d skip her orchard’s 16,000 trees, which like many food plants rely on pollinators to produce a crop. Honeybees, which are trucked in to perform this task on orchards around the nation, were nowhere to be found — her beekeeper neighbor’s shipment was late. To her surprise, though, local wild pollinators like bumble, sweat, and mason bees, nesting in the restored prairie, did all the pollination work. The result: a bountiful apple crop. “The wild will do it for you,” Birmingham said.

There’s plenty of research that supports Birmingham’s experience of wild bees’ relevance in pollinating crops like tree fruits, blueberries, and cranberries, and the role diverse plantings play in giving bees a needed forage and habitat boost. That’s why USDA and conservation nonprofits like the Xerces Society encourage farmers to plant buffers like pollinator strips — wide …


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