In a first of its kind, researchers at the NSW Department of Primary Industries are conducting experiments to discover which pastures will benefit honey bees.
The two-year project, funded by AgriFutures, began last year and is evaluating 22 different species of pasture legumes, mostly regenerating annuals, with sites at Wagga Wagga, Tocal, Cowra and Glen Innes.
Clover4bees project leader and NSW DPI senior research scientist pasture systems, Dr Richard Hayes (on our cover), said the project came about because of the heavy reliance honey bees had on public land.
"There are problems with access to public land and there are all sorts of reasons why the traditional floral resources aren't as plentiful as they used to be," he said.
"The question was 'can we be growing something on private land, crops or pastures, that are better for honey bees?'."
Dr Hayes said while there had been unprecedented development of pasture legumes in Australia, with dozens of new species created over the past couple of decades, they had never been evaluated for honey production.
"Some of the flowers are quite spectacular so these plants are obviously putting resources into these flowers that are attractive to pollinators," he said.
"So the thinking is there must be some value in them for honey bees."
Dr Hayes said the pilot project was the first step to get some sort of scientific basis.
"Just because a plant has a flower on it doesn't necessarily make it good for honey bees so what we're trying to do is develop metrics to compare species side-by-side and say these ones are good for honey bees and these ones are not," he said.
"At the end of this project we're going to have two things - deliver methodologies for comparing and also deliver to industry a shortlist of species."
With legumes also playing an important role in farming systems by fixing nitrogen, Dr Hayes said the project would provide informed choices for farmers.
Dr Hayes said they were mostly focused on relative nectar production, which would be extracted, quantified and tested in the lab and a sugar composition analysis completed.
"All of these species produce very small quantities of nectar - even the larger flowers the bees have to work hard to get in and that's one of the challenges we have in comparing, it is hard to extract it," he said.
While the primary purpose of the research is for honey bees, Dr Hayes said there was another possible role for the legumes as companion crops in pollination plantings such as almonds.
"Sometimes there might be an advantage in having something else growing that the bees can forage on. If the almond crop only produces pollen then having a source of nectar might be an advantage," he said.
Dr Hayes said beyond the current project the idea would be to continue the research, upscaling and looking into more detail on honey production with fewer species.
"We start with small plots because it is such an array of species that we know nothing about, then narrow the field and then plant larger areas and put some beehives on it and see what the production is like."
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