Research being conducted by professors at Alabama A&M University may be all the buzz for cotton producers and honey producers alike if current trends continue.The husband-wife research team of Ken and Rufina Ward of Alabama A&M’s plant and soil science department got up close and personal with thousands of honeybees as part of a two-year study to determine the affects of honeybees on cotton production.Preliminary data suggest that despite being self-pollinating, cotton plants benefit from the presence of bees.Bee and honey producers love the idea because when cotton is in full bloom in mid summer, many Alabama flowers have already faded. The cotton flowers provide the bees with additional honey-making material, and that translates into more profits for honey producers.Buddy Adamson, who serves as director of the Federation’s Bee and Honey Division as well as its Cotton Division, said the research is a good example of how different farmers are brought together through the Federation. As a result, the research could benefit both groups, he said.”Our bee and honey and cotton divisions are very interested in this mutual relationship,” Adamson said. “Both divisions will be involved in coordinating this research and supplying the results to cotton producers and beekeepers alike.”Madison County farmer Mike Tate, along with his father, Homer, brothers, Steve and Jeff, and cousin, Pat Brown, operates Tate Farms which includes 5,000 acres of cotton. The Tate farm was part of the research program for A&M in 1999 and 2000. While the results of the research aren’t conclusive, Tate believes it should be continued.”The research holds a lot of potential, if we can actually prove the bees help increase yields,” said Tate, who serves on the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Cotton Committee. “There are some challenges in having the colonies close by, but it hasn’t been anything that we couldn’t work out with the owners of the bees. The preliminary results indicate the bees had a positive effect on our yields.”For bee and honey producers like Bill Mullins of Meridianville, having colonies near cotton fields can pay sweet rewards. The test plot included 150 colonies of bees on a 150-acre field, and each colony made about 60 pounds of honey, said Mullins, who is chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Bee and Honey Committee. “I’m interested in higher honey production for myself and other producers, but when you combine that with the potential to increase the cotton yields for farmers, the program holds even more potential.”Ken Ward said Mullins and other members of the Madison County Bee and Honey Committee approached the university’s research director, Dr. McArthur Floyd, about an impact study of honeybees on cotton production. While the results don’t provide conclusive evidence that the bees increased cotton production, the results are promising and certainly point in that direction, Ward said.”We took samples at various distances from the colonies out into the cotton field,” he said. “The second year we repeated the project in another field and got similar results–yields increased by 10-15 percent in the fields with the bee colonies present.”But because the research was limited to two years and a small test area, there are still many questions to be answered, said Rufina Ward.”What we don’t know is the amount of bees it might take to get those results,” she said. “Can we get the same or similar results by using fewer bees over the same size field? A similar study in Australia has been conducted since our research was done, and it showed an even stronger effect with fewer bees.”Mullins said it would be hard to supply a colony of bees for every acre–there aren’t enough colonies in the state to cover them that heavily, he said. But finding the number of bees required to make a difference and determining the increase in yields, if any, will be the goal of future research, he said.More research is planned for this year and will include various size fields in different locations throughout the state, Ken Ward said. He said more research also is needed to determine what affects soil types, cotton variety and other food sources have on the cotton-bee pollination research project. Another positive outcome of the current research that has been conclusive is that farmers from different backgrounds and different crops can work together toward a common goal, he said.”The Tates have been so cooperative and are willing to try new things,” Ward said. “The bee and honey producers are pleased that the research could yield them more honey. It’s a great relationship.”While the relationship isn’t without its obstacles, both farmers agree working together has been mutually beneficial.Tate said pesticides used to spray the cotton could be potentially harmful to the bees, but if spraying is required, he tries to spray at the time of day when the bees are least active and more likely to be inside their colonies. The Boll Weevil Eradication Program and Bt cotton also have reduced the need for spraying, he said.Huntsville honey producer Harold Green, who along with Mullins supplied bees for the Tates’ fields, said spraying wasn’t a problem. “The bees aren’t usually in the fields until the cotton blooms are on, and fortunately there isn’t much spraying that goes on then,” Green said. “The good thing about having so many flowers available in mid summer is that after July virtually nothing is blooming. If you have a poor spring flow, you won’t make any honey without another flower source.”Green and Mullins said bees also benefit from the food source provided by cotton because it allows the colonies to build up strength for the winter.
Pollination Research Creates Buzz Among Cotton Farmers