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June 11, 2014

Rufus Isaacs: Research creates buzz

June 11, 2014

Rufus Isaacs is a professor of entomology who is leading the Integrated Crop Pollination project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project involves 15 institutions throughout the country and is looking at alternative pollination strategies.

Soon after joining the faculty at MSU, I told a potential graduate student who was interested in studying bees that she needed to find a different lab, because “we don’t work with bees”. This proves you should never say never because during the past decade a major portion of my research program has focused on the fascinating world of bees and crop pollination.

As an entomologist, I am interested in how insects affect crop production and much of my lab’s research has been to develop approaches to minimize the economic impact of pest insects in Michigan berry farms. This state produces an abundance of blueberries, grapes, raspberries and strawberries and our work helps address insect-related pest problems that can cut yields and reduce marketability. That research continues, but we are increasingly interested in the pollination part of fruit production.

Spurred on by another potential graduate student, more than a decade ago we started to investigate the wild bees that contribute to blueberry pollination. During the past decade, we have found that there are well over 400 species of wild bee that call Michigan home, and a quarter of those visit blueberry fields. We are identifying the bees that are most important to crop yields, and learning how those might be enhanced in farms by asking: what can growers do to enhance nesting habitat and food resources for bees in their farms?

Our recent studies have shown that adding wildflower plantings next to blueberry fields increase wild bees (probably because they have more pollen and nectar to eat after the crop blooms) and this boosts crop yields. The increase was big enough to pay for the cost of the wildflower habitat enhancements.

This is being expanded out onto Michigan blueberry and cherry farms in a current project that we are leading at MSU in cooperation with colleagues across the nation to develop Integrated Crop Pollination programs for various fruit, nut and vegetable crops.

As the world population continues to grow and more is asked of our cropland, sustainable intensification of agriculture will be essential for meeting this future challenge. Pollination and pest management are sometimes seen as being in opposition, but we need to find ways to balance the need for both to address this global challenge. By doing so we can help prepare for how food will be grown by the next generation, in Michigan and beyond.

Photo by Kurt Stepnitz