Ellis Luckhurst, Technical Manager at Riviera Produce with Professor Juliet Osborne from the Environment and Sustainability Institute.
Image: Toby Weller
Business and bees could benefit from new research
Cornwall’s leading vegetable growing company is aiming to increase its profitability and sustainability by providing the best environment for bees.
Riviera Produce, based near Hayle, is collaborating with the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) at the Penryn Campus to find out how it can increase its courgette yields by understanding more about how bees and other insects pollinate the plants.
Riviera Produce currently markets nearly half of Cornwall’s cauliflower and spring greens and, over the summer, is also one of the region’s leading suppliers of courgettes. A high value crop, courgettes are becoming increasingly popular with UK shoppers and just a small rise in the number of fruit produced could have a significant impact on the company’s profits.
By hosting the UK’s first research on the pollination of courgettes, Riviera Produce hopes to develop a forward-looking approach to managing its natural environment.
The research will be carried out by a PhD student funded by the Horticultural Development Company – HDC (Division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) at the Riviera Produce 5,000 acre Higher Trevaskis Farm. The ESI, HDC and Riviera Produce are jointly recruiting the student who will begin the three year project (HDC CP 118) in early 2015. The HDC, working with the Cucurbit Growers Association, will deliver results from the work to the whole of the UK courgette growing industry.
The research aims to uncover which species are pollinating Riviera Produce’s courgette plants. Courgettes are native to North America where they are pollinated by quash bees, which have evolved to exploit the flowers’ heavy sticky pollen grains. Very little is known about the impact of British bees – or other insect species – on courgette pollination.
By using nets to exclude pollinators from some plants, while increasing numbers among others, the student will be able to measure the difference pollinating insects make to the yield.
The student will experiment with different ways of attracting more pollinators. This could involve growing wild flowers nearby to see if they provide an attraction or distraction, or introducing more pollinating species, for example honeybees or commercial bumblebees, to the plants.
As well as benefiting Riviera Produce, the research findings could be relevant to other commercial growers in the UK as well as amateur gardeners and allotment holders.
The HDC Industry Representative on the project, Ellis Luckhurst, Technical Manager at Riviera Produce, said: “Courgettes are a very high value crop with tight profit margins, so just a small increase in yield could make a big difference commercially.
“Pollination is a hot topic at the moment so it is important for us to address these issues. We don’t yet know how much of a role – if any - bees play in pollinating courgettes, but this research will ensure we base any future changes on sound science. As well as looking to answer some practical questions about how we can make our plants perform better, we want to ensure we manage wildlife at the farm in the best possible way.”
At the outset of the project, David Rodda, Rural Delivery Manager of the Cornwall Agri-Food Council introduced Professor Juliet Osborne from the ESI to a number of local growers, including Riviera Produce. David said: “It is fantastic to see academics and farmers working together to address such an important issue. Good crop management, efficient harvesting, supply chain logistics and good routes to market underpin profitability and sustainability but the role of the pollinator is a critical building block of the whole process.
“We are fortunate here in Cornwall to have a world-class institute that has the knowledge to tackle some of the issues that our farms are facing. I hope this collaboration with the ESI will be the first of many.”
Professor Juliet Osborne of the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute said: “This is a great opportunity to do some cutting-edge science while also benefiting a local business. I hope this research collaboration will make a real difference to the business commercially and to Cornwall’s local food agenda, as well as helping them ensure they have a positive impact on the local environment. It should be good for the business and good for bees.”
The ESI is working with businesses and enterprises across all sectors of the economy in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and beyond to translate research and expertise into innovative business practices, products and services in order to respond to the challenges of environmental change. It has been funded by the European Regional Development Fund Convergence Programme (£22.9M) and the South West Regional Development Agency (£6.6M), with significant support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Date: 4 July 2014