How wildflowers boost soybean yields and quality

Researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) have uncovered valuable insights into soybean pollination, revealing that while soybeans can self-pollinate, cross-pollination involving multiple plants significantly enhances yields. Moreover, introducing a strip of wildflowers near soybean rows intensifies this positive effect, potentially aiding Maryland farmers in boosting soybean production and market competitiveness.

Published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology, the study, led by Kathleen Evans, a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at UMD, emphasizes the importance of cross-pollination in enhancing soybean production. The researchers focused on edamame, the same soybean species used for animal feed in the U.S. but harvested earlier for human consumption. Understanding pollination strategies becomes particularly crucial for the edamame market, where factors like consumer acceptance and seed count per pod influence sales.

A japanese beetle eating an edamame flower. Research suggests a strip of wildflowers near edamame rows may increase bean pod yield by attracting predators of such edamame pests. Credit: Kathleen C. Evans / University of Maryland

Traditionally cultivated globally, soybeans’ pollination and its impact on bean pod quality had not undergone formal evaluation. The researchers conducted experiments at the University of Maryland Central Maryland Research and Education Center, utilizing three pollination methods in a 16 x 16-meter plot. Additionally, they planted a strip of native Mid-Atlantic wildflowers at one end of the plot.

Using fine mesh to prevent pollinators from visiting, the team achieved self-pollination in some plants, while a second group underwent careful hand cross-pollination with pollen from a separate donor plant. A third group was left open for natural pollination, likely involving cross-pollination by insects. The results indicated that compared to self-pollination, both hand cross-pollination and open-pollination led to more market-grade-A quality pods. Notably, open-pollinated flowers surpassed both other treatments in grade-A bean count, with a 17% heavier harvest compared to self-pollinated and hand-pollinated plants.

Furthermore, soybean plants open to natural pollination and situated closer to flower strips exhibited higher yields. The researchers hypothesize that increased biodiversity near and within fields attracted more pollinators and potential pest predators, indicating that cultivating greater biodiversity could enhance soybean yields.

This research not only expands our understanding of soybean pollination but also provides practical insights that can benefit soybean farmers, particularly those engaged in edamame production in Maryland.

Source: University of Maryland

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