Honeybees Big Things Come in Small Packages

By Jon Cooner

Honeybees play a critical role in the Whitetail Institute’s development of new plant varieties for food plots for deer. In fact, the Whitetail Institute couldn’t do it without them. The importance of bees is vastly broader than just forage research, though. It would be impossible to overstate how critical bees are to life as we know it on Earth.

The Role Bees Play in Whitetail Institute Forage Development

The Whitetail Institute is the food plot company that genetically develops new forage varieties specifically for deer. The technically correct term for these new forage varieties is “cultivars.”

“In conversation, we sometimes refer to the new forages the Whitetail Institute develops as new ‘varieties’,” Dr. Hanna explains. “That’s fine in everyday conversation because it gets the point across that what the Whitetail Institute has developed is new and/or improved for a specific purpose: as a forage for deer. The correct scientific term, though, is ‘cultivars’.”

Anyone familiar with the Whitetail Institute’s history knows that it started with Ray Scott’s idea that just as plant varieties had been developed for agriculture, and for cattle hay and grazing, new varieties could also be scientifically developed to meet the unique attraction, palatability and nutritional needs of whitetail deer. That idea became reality with Imperial Whitetail Clover, which remains to this day the only clover product ever genetically developed specifically for whitetails.

While most folks are aware of that story and the huge impact Whitetail Institute forage products continue to have on the entire hunting industry, they may not be as familiar with the crucial role bees play in Whitetail Institute’s plant-breeding: bees are indispensable to cross-pollination, the process by which pollen is transferred between flowering plants, allowing them to reproduce.

To create Imperial Whitetail Clover, the Whitetail Institute’s first Director of Forage Research Dr. Wiley Johnson, selected approximately 100 different clover varieties to serve as breeding stock. He then began the laborious process of cross-breeding them using honeybees over the course of seven years, discarding most offspring and keeping only those that best met specific criteria related to whitetail food plots, for example attractiveness to whitetails, palatability, sustained protein content, early seedling vigor, resistance to heat, cold and disease, and other criteria. This is the same general process the Whitetail Institute follows today when developing new plant varieties. A more recent example is Tall Tine Turnip, the new turnip cultivar that is the backbone turnip variety in Tall Tine Tubers. Like humans, each plant has its own individual genetics that are different in some way from the genetics of any other plant. Dr. Hanna also explains that using bees for cross pollination increases genetic diversity, which makes resulting cultivars more stable and better able to adapt to different growing conditions. “In order for the Whitetail Institute to conclude that it has developed a new cultivar, the new and/or improved plants must be distinct, meaning that they must exhibit traits that distinguish them from any other known cultivar. They must also be uniform and stable, meaning that they must be able to repeatedly produce seed that also carries the genetic traits of the parent plants,” Dr. Hanna said.

The Importance of Bees to the World As We Know It

The economic importance of bees in agriculture is enormous. According to a Cornell University study, the value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually. And that’s not surprising when you consider that many plants depend entirely on bees for production. Some crops, for example, will not set fruit unless their flowers are cross-pollinated. In fact, we humans depend on honeybees to pollinate 80 percent of flowering crops — about one third of the food we eat.

In addition, the amount of fruit production of many plants is directly related to the number of bees that cross-pollinate them — the more bees that pollinate the plant, the more fruit it yields. This obviously is of direct impact concerning crops humans grow for consumption. Consider also how important it is to crops grown to feed the animals we eat or use for dairy production. Alfalfa is an excellent example. Honeybees greatly increase the amount of alfalfa seed produced for harvest. Without them, it would take many more acres to produce enough seed for our needs, which would result in vastly higher prices for related goods. Dr. Hanna summarizes that fact in very direct way: “Bees help us produce food, feed and fiber economically and in sufficient quantity to furnish it to people around the world.”

And, don’t forget that without honey, the world would be a lot less sweet — and we’d miss out on the important health benefits honey provides.

“The diversity of plants that bees get nectar and pollen from carries forward into the honey and helps us develop resistance to different allergies,” Dr. Hanna explains.

So the next time you see a honeybee, maybe you’ll look at it a little differently. She’s a hard worker that’s crucial to the quality of the food plots you plant for your deer. And more importantly, she’s vital to the production of the food you feed your family.