Could flies be the backup species to pollinate crops instead of bees?

Researchers in Western Australia have confirmed that a species of blowfly is as good at pollination as bees.

Since the Varroa mite outbreak in New South Wales, the threat of loss of bee populations has become even greater for beekeepers and farmers.

Scientists from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) have been carrying out this research since 2019 as part of a national project funded by Hort Innovation.

The premise of the trials was that the industry feared it was relying on just one species of pollinator – bees – according to DPIRD senior entomologist David Cook.

It is hoped that the flies will be a sort of backup pollinator for the bees. (Provided: DPIRD)

“Accidental” pollinators

Mr Cook says that because blowflies have hairy legs, they pick up pollen almost by accident.

In some cases, native flies stayed on a flower for an average of 30 seconds, transferring pollen between flowers.

Flies on blueberries
Researchers have begun larger-scale trials on blueberry plants in a tunnel house.(Provided: DPIRD)

Blowflies can operate in slightly lower temperatures than bees, which is an added advantage of this insect as a pollinator, especially in colder avocado-growing regions such as southern Western Australia and the Tasmania.

The other benefit of blowflies is that they don’t sting you like bees do, so managing them can be – literally – less painful.

Of course, blowflies lack the added benefit of the sweet by-product that bees make – honey – which presents a challenge to making fly pollinators economically viable.

Contain the flies

A major advantage of having bees as pollinators is that they live in hives, so they can be quite easily controlled and moved around if necessary.

This is one of the biggest challenges in commercializing blow flies as managed pollinators in crops and orchards.

DPIRD Research Station Avocado Pollination Trial
A fly-controlled pollination experiment in avocado orchards in south-west Western Australia. (Provided: DPIRD)

However, researchers have found that the size of the fly can be bioengineered to be smaller than usual, to prevent it from flying too far from a crop.

Adult flies can also be neutered to prevent them from reproducing or becoming overcrowded.

“The flies we use are not the kind that are harmful to humans or livestock,” Cook said.

David Cook
DPIRD senior entomologist David Cook said most of the remaining research would focus on the commercialization and deployment of fly pollinators. (Provided: DPIRD)

“We can also deploy decoys that give off a scent that flies like – a [humans] cannot detect.”

Flies are able to detect decaying proteins at a distance of 1 to 1.5 kilometers.

This means that the odor released can not only help trap flies in an orchard, but also attract flies to nearby native vegetation.

The deployment

Realistically, the rollout of the commercialization of fly populations as managed pollinators is still a few years away.

But Mr. Cook is confident in the progress of this research.

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