WSU, Oregon State research team helps modernize blueberry pollination

Lisa DeVetter, in field.
Horticulturalist Lisa DeVetter co-leads research at Washington State University into improved pollination for blueberry crops.

To grow the nation’s $800 million blueberry crop, farmers rely on a combination of domestic honey bees, feral bees, and wild pollinators. Changes in the insect world have meant fewer wild bees to serve this difficult-to-pollinate crop, and have left growers in search of better strategies to pollinate their blueberry bushes.

Pollination is especially important in Washington and Oregon, which together produce nearly half of the national blueberry harvest. Despite the industry’s significance, Pacific Northwest weather during the blooming season is often too cold and wet for bees, leading to poor pollination and reduced yields.

These downsides to blueberry pollination are about to change. This fall, a PNW team including a horticulturalist and economist at Washington State University (WSU) and pollinator health extension specialists at Oregon State University (OSU) joined a new research project to improve blueberry pollination. This project is funded by a four-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Lisa DeVetter, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Horticulture, and Suzette Galinato, assistant director of the IMPACT Center at WSU’s School of Economic Sciences (SES), are part of a group led by Rufus Isaacs, entomologist at Michigan State University.

Partnering with OSU scientist Andony Melathopoulos, a specialist in pollinator health and Extension, along with colleagues at the University of Florida, the project team aims to improve the use of domesticated and wild bees for better yields and profits. A board of stakeholders, including growers, beekeepers, and outreach specialists, will help guide the project.

Suzette Galinato, economist and assistant director of WSU’s IMPACT Center, co-leads WSU research as part of a national team.

The blueberry industry relies on pollination for high yields of quality fruit. New cultivars and growing practices have increased the density of blueberry flowers per acre, but recommendations on how to best manage pollination for modern methods are out of date.

The project will use extensive, advanced agricultural weather networks to help growers predict pollination periods, optimize their spending on commercial pollination, and warn growers of extreme weather conditions that limit insect activity.

At WSU, DeVetter will use her berry horticulture expertise to understand how different pollination conditions impact yield and fruit quality. She will also work with the team to understand how biological, environmental, and spatial variables can be used to predict pollination, helping to create better decision aid systems.

DeVetter, Melathopoulos, and the rest of the project team will also work together on grower-friendly ways to assess honey bee colony strength and outreach.

Galinato, who focuses on Washington agriculture through the IMPACT Center, will estimate the impacts of changes in honey bee pollination practices on long-term profitability of blueberry farms. She will also work with the team to incorporate economic parameters into a decision aid tool for pollination planning.

“We cannot expect growers to immediately adopt new strategies, in place of what they are used to doing,” Galinato said. “There needs to be an economic incentive for adoption to take place.

“Change becomes more likely when it can generate a greater profit than the status quo,” she added. “We will show growers the costs and benefits of alternative pollination strategies, and give them a tool to compare the net profit of these alternatives with their current practices.”

“Achieving successful pollination is critical to ensure high yields and profitability,” DeVetter said. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of guessing and gaps in our knowledge when it comes to blueberry pollination.

“This project will bridge those gaps, build on previous research, and create grower-friendly tools that enhance their chances of achieving successful pollination and profitable production,” she added.

The Specialty Crop Research Initiative is part of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.