Precision management of pollination services to blueberry crops

Experimental design

Within the new varieties obtained in the market the variety “Emerald” is a good model for pollination service management. In Argentina the plant is vigorous and very productive, and can produce fruit in autumn without reducing the spring production through the long flowering period41. As of 2020, around 260 hectares are planted with this blueberry variety in Entre Ríos province.

Field work was conducted during the 2017 flowering period (from July 17th to August 23rd, 2017) on 9 blueberry plots (Vaccinium corymbosum var. Emerald) located in the region of Concordia (Entre Rios, Argentina). Three plots were pollinated under “precision (precision) honey bee management”, while 6 other plots were pollinated under conventional (conventional) honey bee management (two conventional plots per precision plot). We decided to double the number of control plots per farm (conventional bee management) in order to reflect the variability that these agroecosystems present in the study region.

Each plot comprised a 1-ha area, planted with the Emerald variety. The plants were all the same age and subjected to the same agricultural management in respect to fertilization, pruning, water, etc. Six of the nine plots (2 precision plots and the corresponding 4 conventional ones) were open air, while 3 plots (one precision and two conventional) were covered with mesh. This mesh is used to prevent hail and wind damage. All the plots were pollinated by honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) at a density of 10 hives per cultivated ha (Fig. 5).

Figure 5

Map of the plots of blueberries studied. The fields with conventional and precision management of bees are detailed in each farm, and the location of the hives used in each particular case. One Precision (yellow) and two Conventional (the numbers stand out C1 and C2, in red) plots were sampled per farm.

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Precision honey bee management

One month before the blooming season, we carefully selected 30 beehives based on: (a) number of combs covered with adult bees, (b) number of combs with brood, and (c) the presence of an active egg-laying queen, to be prepared for the pollination service. The selected stock of beehives to be used in the precision plots came from the same stock of bees to be used in the control plots, and thus, we could expect that any differences regarding to bees’ performance in the field would be related to the different management (precision) and not due to differences regarding the stocks of bees, neither the ecotypes nor the beekeeping management previous to ours. During the month prior to the pollination service, the selected beehives were prepared for the blooming period by being fed with a dietary supplement (nutritional technology exclusively licensed by Beeflow S.A. and Beeflow Corporation) to boost their immune systems and strength. When blooming reached 5–10% in the precision plots, the beehives were placed so as to surround each plot and managed individually. Beehives were checked during the blooming period and, if it was necessary, they were also fed. We also coordinated pesticide spray applications with growers to avoid bee losses during the pollination service. When 95% of the female flowers were senescent the hives were retired from the field and returned to their original apiary.

Conventional bee management

This group of beehives represented the conventional management performed by beekeepers in Concordia Region, which consists of beehives placed in big groups, between 5 to 50, and located either next to or up to hundreds of meters from the field, with high variation in terms of hive quality (see above), and with infrequent servicing. This management style is similar to those performed by many beekeepers around the globe.

In summary, the main differences between the management of bee hives for pollination services in blueberry are: Start of the incentive diet, the hives for precision management began to be fed before the blooming period with a dietary supplement (sugar syrup 1: 1) to encourage the collection of pollen; Protein feeding, the hives for precision handling were fed during the entire flowering period of the blueberry with a diet especially rich in protein and essential amino acids (i.e.,: alpha arginine); Spatial arrangement, strategic and homogeneous location of the hives individually in contrast to distribution in medium groups (5 hives) to large (30 hives) located in strategic places according to the production advisor; Management against agrochemical applications on the plot, Preventive management for pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers applied by means of aqueous suspension, in this case through an agricultural spraying turbine for a tractor, was carried out only in the hives for precision pollination.

Data collection

The visitation rate to flowers was estimated simultaneously in precision and conventional plots, and at different times of the day. To do this, pollinator censuses were performed by recording the number of flowers visited by pollinators for a period of 5 min (i.e., no. visits . flower−1 . 5 min−1). Each census involved a different randomly selected group of flowers (between 10 and 30 floral units per census), within a randomized location within the plantation. These visits censuses were carried out in all the lots studied on the same day between 10 am and 6 pm, periodically changing the visiting hours to each lot to cover the entire hourly range throughout the 15 sampling dates distributed in between June 17 and August 23, 2017. Census of visits to flower were carried out on days with a favorable climate for foraging bees, sunny to partially sunny days at times where the temperature it is suitable for bee activity (> 10° C). In total, we performed 70 pollinator censuses per plot distributed in 15 days, totaling 52.5 h of observation (i.e. 5.8 hs per plot × 9 plots).

In each plot, 5 plants were tagged (i.e., 5 plants per plot * 9 plots, 45 plants in total), and within each plant 3 branches were randomly selected and tagged with paper tape (a total of 225 experimental branches). The number of open flowers between the tag and the end of the branch were counted in order to determine the number of flowers that produced a fruit (i.e., fruit set). This experimental design allowed the estimation of variation in flowers within and among plants and plantations, subjected to the different pollination practices.

When the time of the harvest arrived, the number of fruits (corresponding to each tagged branch) developed from each plant was counted in relation to the total number of flowers originally present on the branch to estimate fruit-set. Then, the quality of all tagged fruits harvested was evaluated by quantifying individual weight and firmness. A total of ~ 6700 flowers and ~ 5200 fruits were analyzed.

To estimate the firmness of the fruits we used the “compression force,” which is a widely used indicator, using a texture analyzer TA.XT Plus (Stable Micro Systems Ltd., United Kingdom) equipped with a 5 kg load cell and a 75 mm cylinder aluminum probe. It is defined as the force necessary to deform the fruit by 10% and is used as a quantifiable measure equivalent to the force produced when a fruit is pressed between the thumb and the index finger. Finally, to estimate individual fruit weight we used an electronic scale.

Statistical analysis

We analyzed the effect of honey bee management practice (conventional vs. precision) on: (i) visitation frequency to blueberry flowers, (ii) fruit set, (ii) fruit weight, and (iii) fruit firmness, using general and generalized mixed-effects models. Data analysis was carried out using the lmer function from the “lme4” package42,43 of R software (version 2.15.1), applying separate analyses and distributions for each response variable (e.g. visits frequency, fruit set, and firmness, see below).

For (i) visitation frequency (i.e., bee visits) as the response variable the model assumed a Poisson error distribution with a log-link function. We included the number of flowers observed in each census as an offset (i.e., a fixed predictor known in advance to influence insect visitation)44. For (ii) fruit set (i.e., proportion of flowers setting fruit) as response variable the model assumed a Binomial error distribution with a logit-link function. And finally, for (iii) fruit weight and (iii) fruit firmness as response variables the models assumed a Gaussian error distribution. For all models, honey bee management practice (conventional vs precision) was included as a fixed effect, each “plant” was nested within “field”, and each “field” was nested within “farm” as a random effect, following the hierarchical design of our experimental design (i.e. 3 farms, 3 fields within each farm, and 5 plants within each field).

Source: Ecology -

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