Livingston farms set to attract essential insects

January 11, 2011 

On some sandy Livingston soil near an almond orchard, Jessa Guisse and Chris Schlies were trying to help some bees Monday afternoon.

And some butterflies, and some ladybugs.

It's all part of an extremely rare project that Livingston is hosting.

Guisse is a pollinator habitat restoration specialist with the Xerces Society, a nonprofit dedicated to wildlife conservation, invertebrates in particular. An invertebrate is an organism without a backbone.

Guisse was helping Schlies plant bee- and butterfly-friendly plants on Schlies' land. "All of my work is in the agriculture sector," Guisse said. "I work with farmers who want biodiversity."

Guisse deals with farmers who want to help pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. "When you help the pollinators, you also attract beneficial insects to fields," she said.

There are 1,500 native species of bees in California, Guisse said. Helping those species also helps the honeybees that are so essential to many crops, such as almonds. "We focus on plants that have a lot of pollen, that's what's important to the bees," Guisse said.

Some species of bees, such as bumblebees, are endangered, Guisse said. "Habitat loss and disease have hurt them," Guisse said. "If we help the bumblebees, we also help the honeybees."

Bumblebees are used in greenhouse production, Guisse said, and are essential to blueberry growers.

Guisse said her organization was funded by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and works with the East Merced Resource Conservation Service, which is part of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts.

There are a dozen projects like the one in Livingston across the country, with seven of them in California.

The plants were being planted on about 6,500 square feet, and included about 150 plants and a couple of pounds of wildflower seed. Guisse said there are about 25 species of plants, including wild California rose, salvia, deer grass and redbud.

"Most of these are native to California," Guisse said. "They are all drought-tolerant and will only be lightly irrigated for the first couple of years, and then they won't need any supplemental water at all."

Schlies said the land next to where the plants were put in includes an almond orchard and a sweet potato field.

The farmer said he read how honeybees take highly predictable routes in their pollination, which doesn't do a good job of cross-pollination. "If native bees are present, it makes the honeybees better at pollinating, because they aren't flying in such straight lines," Schlies said.

Along with helping the habitat, Schlies said the plants should help with pollinating the almond orchard.

"Instead of using 2½ hives per acre, I can probably cut it down to 1½ hives per acre," Schlies said.

This project has been in the planning stages for a year, and Schlies has planted a couple of citrus trees in his almond orchard, because citrus trees have a lot of pollen in their blooms.

Guisse said the project on Schlies' land will be used as an example for other growers who want to know about the butterflies and the bees.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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