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Drone surrounded by worker bees. © INRA, MORISON Nicolas

Scientists flying to the rescue of bees

Agriculture and bees on the research agenda

And what if agriculture and beekeeping could find a middle ground? Is it possible to imagine profitable agriculture that is socially acceptable to farmers, but at the same time respects bees? INRA and its partners have been trying to answer these questions in the context of several research projects: Polinov, Ecophyto-Dephy Abeilles and InterApi.

Updated on 03/23/2017
Published on 05/01/2014

Agriculture that likes bees

Polinov • This major research project, carried out between 2010 and 2012 at the Ecobee site, enabled the design and evaluation of innovative cropping systems that are favourable to honey bee colonies. In the first instance, a model was created in order to evaluate several criteria (land use, crops, the diversity of plants growing in fields) which might be favourable or not to pollinators. Polinov was thus able to establish the importance of weeds, which account for a third of food sources for bees. But the use of herbicides to eliminate them deprives pollinating insects of food sources that are essential to their survival.  And that is not all: Polinov was able to propose cropping systems which can first, assure food resources for bees, and secondly, limit their exposure to pesticides. The scientists proposed innovations in four cropping systems (irrigated cereals, non-irrigated cereals or organic cereals, or mixed livestock farming) that would enable bees to find resources in the main crop, intercrops and flowered bands planted within the plots. One limitation to this approach is that these systems involve additional costs for the farmer, who might not be ready to cover them alone.

Role play to better understand each other

Ecophyto-Dephy Abeilles • Once the Polinov programme had been completed, the scientists wanted to go further in their research, and thanks to a network of volunteer farmers, test some of their proposals for innovative farming systems. Thus the Ecophyto-Dephy Abeilles programme was born. One of its objectives is to take better account of opportunities to reduce the use of plant health products or introduce new crops into the rotation. One of the activities planned within this framework is the development of role play involving beekeepers and farmers. This method may be able to identify causes of friction between the two activities, and also enable the emergence of new ideas to improve the cohabitation and viability of bees. The proposals resulting from this dialogue will be implemented by the farmers themselves and tested by setting up hives close to their farms.

Giving cover crops as a gift for bees

InterAPI • Cover crops (CIPAN in French, for Cultures Intermédiaires Piège à Nitrates), are crops of rapidly-growing plants that can protect plots from leaching and erosion. Compulsory, they are often considered as an additional burden by farmers. However, they may also serve to improve the daily living conditions of honey bees at the end of the season, and help better prepare colonies for the onset of winter. The InterAPI programme, which will be completed at the end of October 2014, aims to identify the best melliferous cover crops and optimum cropping systems. To achieve this, 240 colonies are being monitored at eight sites, to see notably which melliferous crops (mustard, clover, lucerne, etc.) are the best exploited by the bees. Thus farmers who are sensitive to the survival of pollinators may be able to adapt their cover crops in line with the conclusions of this project.