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Bees in beans: Q&A with Matt O'Neal

John Walter Updated: 07/18/2013 @ 10:26am

Dr. Matt O'Neal, an Iowa State University entomologist, has focused his research mainly on developing insect pest management programs for soybean production.

In studying soybean aphids, and being aware of the crisis in U.S. pollinator populations, O'Neal has taken an interest in the role of honeybees and native bees in Midwest crops. He spoke at the Bayer Bee Conference in Ames, Iowa, last spring, telling attendees that bees appear to play a big role in pollinating soybeans, and that more native bees are being found in crop fields than ever expected. 

I followed up with an interview of him this summer in preparing a Successful Farming magazine story on pollinators -- bees and the other creatures upon which so much of food production depends. His comments provide a fascinating perspective on the current condition of pollinators in corn and soybean landscapes, and offer some ideas on how farmers can help bee populations thrive. 

Walter: I’m working on a story on the pollinator situation, particularly as this current crisis pertains to production agriculture. Is there any new research that would be of interest to farmers?

O'Neal: There is quite a lot of research going on at ISU related to bee health, conservation, and pest management. I am aware of at least four research groups that are exploring these topics. My work involves studying the pollinators that visit corn and soybean fields and best practices for conserving them. One project that we are working on is the occurrence of bee viruses in the many bees (both honeybees and native, solitary bees) of Iowa. We are exploring if the landscape in Iowa influences the occurrence of these viruses. 

My lab is exploring the pollinator community that visits corn and soybean fields. Although this sounds simple, it has been remarkably interesting. This project is entering its third year, and we have found over 20 species of bees that visit both crops.

Combined with the species of flies that can also pollinate plants, we have over two dozen species. This is a surprise to me, as during the past 10 years of studying insects in soybeans, I rarely found bees. However, what we have learned is that the way you sample insects in these fields determines what you find. Using a net is not good enough to capture these many species. We needed to use traps that mimic flowers, both in color and shape, to capture bees in these fields. 

In a separate project we are exploring the best ways to conserve beneficial insects, especially those that help suppress pests and pollinate crops. These insects need food and shelter when annual crops are not present. We have found that a mix of native, perennial plants that provide flowers throughout the season can increase the abundance and diversity of these beneficial insects. We have just begun a project to determine if a mix of these plants can increase the abundance and diversity of beneficial insects to an adjacent vegetable or soybean crop.

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