Colorado State University researchers have found that 23 different bee species are attracted to Colorado’s vast hemp fields. Entomology graduate student Colton O’Brien developed the study to observe bees while hemp crops were in full bloom. Since other Colorado crops do not pollinate at the same time, the hemp study offered a unique insight.
O’Brien was standing in the university’s hemp field when he noticed an incredible buzzing sound. Then it hit him—the bees were using hemp because they were attracted to it. O’Brien works in the area of pollination biology and was aiming to find out whether bees were specifically attracted to hemp pollen.
The research team set bee traps and determined that bees were not only attracted to the hemp pollen, but they were also collecting it, which is the vital point of the research.
Bees have pollinating superpowers
O’Brien stated that 66 different bee species call Colorado home. About one-third of the bee species (23 total) gravitated toward the hemp fields. The majority of bees in the traps were the common honey bee, but researchers were also surprised to find specialized wild bee species, like Melissodes bimaculata and Peponapis pruinosa, in fairly high proportions.
The research is interesting because it means that the hemp fields create a key part of an ecosystem which would not exist in Colorado without the hemp crop.
O’Brien said that his team believes this is the first research study on bees and hemp. He points out that the study is very preliminary and serves as a baseline research project. The initial results are very promising and have led the team to ask many more questions about what exactly attracts the bees to the hemp.
The team is in the process of writing their manuscript for publication in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.
Since hemp and cannabis plants contain naturally occurring compounds called cannabinoids, like CBD and others, researchers wonder if bees are attracted to a particular one. Given the importance of bees, O’Brien hopes that his initial research will help crop scientists safely harbor bees when they develop pest control strategies for hemp crops.
Could hemp help save the bees?
Since the 1990s, bee populations have been in decline, and since, have reached alarming levels. The main cause is a class of industrial pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are widely used in agriculture. The phenomenon has been studied for years and has even led groups like the European Commission to ban certain classes of pesticides.
In 2013 alone, U.S. beekeepers experienced as much as a 50 percent loss to their hives. The repercussions were felt among California’s almond growers who rely on 1.6 million bees to pollinate the nearly one million acres of orchards. A nationwide effort was launched to obtain the necessary number of bee colonies to pollinate the almond trees.
Almonds represent California’s largest agricultural export to other nations. In the European Union, experts estimate that bees directly contribute over 22 billion Euros ($29 million) to the agricultural economy.
Other crops don’t need quite as many bees as almond orchards, but according to some reports, scientists warn that if the trend continues, other food crops will be adversely affected. The majority of the world’s food crops do depend on insect pollination. In fact, a study of over 40 food crops on six continents showed that healthy wild bee populations were the key to a successful crop.
If hemp offers a prominent pollen source for the bees, it could be a game changer. As bees’ habitats continue to decline from pesticides and other stressors, hemp might offer a haven in that it is a suitable pollinating crop that can improve their habitats. The hemp flowers attract bees, which can access crucial phytochemicals through the pollen and the nectar. That, in turn, provides improved bee nutrition as well as improved pathogen tolerance in the hives.
The initial research will pave the way for additional studies on the true nutritional value that hemp offers bees and larva. It will also further studies on exactly how bees interact with the hemp and whether cannabinoids play a role in pollination.
In short, researchers hope to determine whether hemp is truly the bee’s knees.