Image: NYSAES/Cornell

Farmers looking to improve disease control and crop yield may want to enlist the help of the humble bee. According to results published in a recent issue of the journal Biological Control, Nature's little couriers outperformed mechanical sprayers in delivering a natural fungicide to strawberry crops. Recipients of the bee-borne treatment also produced more robust fruit, as the result of enhanced pollination.

Ohio State University researcher Joseph Kovach dressed the bees' feet with spores of an antifungal organism known as Trichoderma harzarium 1295-22, or T-22, by placing a "footbath" at the doorsteps of beehives. Bees exiting the hives unwittingly picked up the fungicide on their way out and then deposited some of their payload on each strawberry flower they visited.

Unlike mechanical sprayers, which douse the entire plant with fungicide, the bees head straight for the flowers, which are what the farmers want to target, too. And even though the flowers that were treated with bee-dispensed fungicide received only half the amount administered to sprayed plants, they showed better fungus control: researchers reduced the number of infected strawberry plants by 72 percent with the bee method, as compared with 40 percent with the spray approach. The natural fungicide, when delivered by bees, performed as effectively as sprayed chemical fungicides.

Moreover, strawberries plucked from plants that had been visited by bees weighed 26 to 40 percent more than those from plants that hadn't been treated. Strawberry growers don't generally keep hives because strawberry pollination occurs primarily via wind and gravity. The new study along with results from earlier research, however, indicates that sending in the bees results in better pollination. The bee method requires Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval before it can be mentioned on the label of commercially available T-22