Golf courses can play a large role in sustaining bees–even with pesticide use.

Pollinators are vital to the way we live our lives. Without them, we would have no food as well as associated crops affected by their activity such as alfalfa, pasture grass and honey production. Unfortunately, over the past two decades, their numbers have been on the decline. Many factors have led to their demise, but the one that seems to get the most attention is the use of pest control products by agriculture and green industry enterprises.

Deservedly or not, the golf course industry has gotten a bad rap from certain environmental groups. They see all the green, and mistakenly assume that massive amounts of water, fertilizer and highly poisonous pesticides are routinely applied on a daily basis to create it and keep it that way.

When this type of scrutiny is received, it’s helpful to be able to point to features of the golf course that promote and demonstrate good land stewardship. After all, which would be more favorable – a green, carbon dioxide-absorbing, erosion-preventing, wildlife-enhancing, natural ecosystem or another strip mall?

The most famous of our native bees are bumblebees.


Common pollinators

There are a few different groups of pollinating insects, but bees are the best known. In the United States, there are over 4,000 species of wild, native bees. Honeybees, an introduced species, are the most famous pollinating insect and for good reason. These industrious insects provide loads of pollination services to many crops.

In addition, we have been working with and tending to domestic bee colonies for thousands of years and obtain honey, beeswax and other products from them. You can go to Egypt and find hieroglyphs of people working with bee colonies.

Honeybees are relatively easy to identify: They are a half-inch long with fine golden hair on their body. They also will have dark brown or black stripes on their abdomen.

The most famous of our native bees are bumblebees. These important pollinators are relatively easy to identify as they are the biggest, fuzziest bees you will see on flowers. Their bodies are covered in dense hairs that help to transfer pollen from plant to plant. They are also quite audible, making a distinct buzzing noise. There are several species you could encounter such as the impatient bumblebee, the brown-belted bumblebee or the rusty-patched bumblebee. If you are curious about bumblebee identification, you can consult the Xerces Society’s bumblebee guide for the eastern or western U.S.

Other bees, while not as widely known as honeybees or bumblebees, are just as common and valuable. For example, mason bees and leaf cutter bees are pollinators for crops like squash and other cucurbits. These bees are good builders, but each with different materials. Mason bees commonly collect mud and construct small clay pots for their eggs, while leafcutter bees snip bits of leaf and then origami fold them into a container for an egg.

These bees are mostly solitary as opposed to the social honey/bumblebees. These bees are about the same length as a honeybee but are less hairy, and their fuzz tends to be white rather than gold in color. The definitive way to tell if you are looking at leafcutter or mason bees is to check their stomach; this group has a large cluster of pollen-carrying hairs, giving them a distinctly hairy tummy. Other types of solitary bees you may find outside include sweat bees and mining bees.

Other insects, such as the monarch butterfly, are important pollinators.

Finally, we can’t forget the pollination contributions from cherished insects such as the famous monarch butterfly and other butterfly relatives and moths. Flies also are an extremely valuable source of pollination, but people tend to forget about them. There are flies like hover flies that mimic bees and are purposeful pollinators, but there are others that are tricked into visiting flowers.

Pollinator decline

Unfortunately, we have been losing numbers and species of pollinating insects at an alarming rate. This issue has proved to be quite complex.

First and foremost, there are severe complications for pollinators resulting from habitat loss. In the U.S., we replace green space with urbanized areas at the rate of 1 million hectares a year. This leads to reductions in food resources and nesting habitats for pollinating insects.

Two other factors are the negative effects of invasive diseases and parasites. One such parasite, the varroa mite, can be incredibly destructive to honeybee hives. This pest is a tiny Dracula, sucking the lifeblood from worker bees. Imagine that you had a tick the size of a house cat on you, and you will begin to understand what a bee goes through with a varroa mite infestation.

Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator program aims to attract pollinating insects to golf courses.


Another factor in pollinator loss, and the one that has received the most attention, is the negative effects of insecticides on bees. In particular, the neonicotinoid class has been shown to seriously affect bees. University trials have demonstrated that when bees are exposed to representatives of this class they can suffer impaired navigational abilities, reduced foraging activities and reproductive losses in the hive. It is important to note, though, that these exposures likely only occur when the products are misapplied against label recommendations.

Best management practices

Golf course superintendents have no control over some of these factors. However, a few changes in management can be made to positively influence the health and vigor of the pollinator population.

As golf courses are some of the last remaining green spaces in many urban environments, they can play a large role in providing food resources to bees. We have seen successes with projects like Operation Pollinator converting out-of-play areas into naturalized habitat.

Pollinators prefer to gather nectar from tall, undisturbed plants of various heights. Changing fairways and tees to a plant grouping such as this is probably out of the question. However, perhaps leaving a few weeds in the rough and out-of-bounds areas as untreated “no mow” areas is a possibility in certain cases. These stands will bloom and produce nectar to sustain butterflies and bees.

Native plants in no-mow areas can produce nectar to sustain bees and butterflies.

To fit with the course layout, the no-mow areas could be simple or extensive. Obviously, the bigger the better, but even small areas can make an impact. Bigger areas are sometimes combined with bird boxes and habitat to enhance the foraging capacity for pollinators. To get a head start on the project, consider planting a pollinator mix. Local botanical gardens are a good source of the specific species to include for each part of the country. In general, most pollinators are active during the middle and warmest part of the day. To reduce mortality to them, treat for turf damaging insects during the parts of the day when pollinators are not collecting nectar; usually the best times to treat are in the early morning and evening hours.

From a playability standpoint, no-mow strips are not feasible in all roughs. Occasional mowing is required for some areas. From time to time, to keep these turf areas in decent playing shape, they must be treated with herbicides to control weeds such as white clover. In addition to occasional mowing, applying weed control products before they flower will greatly decrease the lethal effects to insects that may visit them to forage. Treating weeds before they flower also increases the efficacy of controlling the weeds themselves, as plants in the reproductive stage of their life cycle are less likely to be controlled.

When using insecticides, always be sure to follow label guidelines and not apply any insecticide to nectar-producing, pollen-shedding plants in the area. This includes weeds such as clover and dandelion. There are products such as chlorantraniliprole (Acelepryn from Syngenta) that have little to no effect on bees and other pollinators. But if you follow proper protocol you can use nearly any insecticide and not harm the bees.

Finally, sound cultural practices such as irrigation, fertilization, cultivar selection and cultivation that help to produce a thick dense turf makes good sense for a variety of reasons, including benefiting pollinators. Turf in good condition has a low need for insecticide and herbicide applications that may negatively influence pollinating insects.