Golf course research program keeps eyes on the bee

As the 2021 Masters Tournament begins play this morning, spring is on full display at the Augusta National Golf Course with riots of azaleas competing for attention amid white and pink dogwood blossoms and other showy plantings.

The golf course even celebrates this seasonal spectacle, and its plant nursery beginnings, with greenery-themed nicknames and plantings for each hole.

While golf fans may be focused more on the length of Amen Corner’s No. 11 hole than on its White Dogwood moniker, one UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) research team will likely be sizing it up for a good spot to plant some wildflowers.

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Adam Dale, an urban landscape entomologist with IFAS, has been planting wildflowers on golf courses for several years to attract pollinators, like native bee species, and his research is demonstrating that the plots also can reduce the numbers of harmful insects on the fairways, roughs and greens.

The average Florida golf course is larger than 100 acres, and between 40 to 70 percent of that land is not used for golf, Dale said. As part of his work for IFAS, Dale provides pest and plant management recommendations to golf course superintendents, and in the last few years he’s been studying the impact of converting some of these out-of-play areas to conservation areas filled with wildflowers.

Florida has hundreds of species of native bees, and Dale said these bees help pollinate a large percent of plants, including food crops. Diseases and human activity, such as pesticide use, have prompted a steep decline in bee populations, and creating conservation areas on golf courses helps support these important insects, especially in urban areas.

“Helping conserve those populations has a lot of far-reaching impacts in terms of the food we eat and the plants that we depend on and that other wildlife depend on,” Dale said.

Out-of-play areas on golf courses are often segments of land with turf grass, which has to be weeded, watered, fertilized and mowed like the rest of the course. But conservation areas filled with wildflowers need less care—especially once they get established—and reduce the amount of labor and resources the golf courses spend on the plots, according to the research.

“One big motivation is trying to figure out ways we could reduce insects that damage turf areas and figure out ways golf course superintendents could reduce management inputs and labor costs,” Dale said in a phone interview.

But Dale, who has a doctorate in entomology and serves as an assistant professor in the Entomology and Nematology Department, has found wildflower areas also have another benefit to golf courses: they attract the kind of beneficial insect visitors that can help control the numbers of insect pests.

At three Central Florida courses, including UF’s Mark Bostick Golf Course, predatory and parasitic insects, which feed on common golf course pests like fall armyworms and mole crickets, were attracted to the mix of wildflowers in the plots.

Dale found these beneficial insects helped reduce the pests in the area of turfgrass next to the wildflower plots.

“What we have been able to show is if you put flowering plants in those spaces, you increase pollinators and you increase predatory and parasitic insects that are … help[ing] reduce damaging pests on golf courses,” Dale said.

Dale said it will take further investigation to figure out how many of the plots, which in the study were slightly larger than a basketball court, it will take to see large-scale reduction in pest species on golf courses.

“Any implementation is beneficial, but the point at which they see a marked reduction in insecticide use or pest pressure is to be determined,” Dale said. “We do know the larger your conservation plantings, the more value they provide and the more insects they support.”

Dale says that golf course superintendents—many of whom have worked on conservation issues for years—have been receptive to his ideas as he gives talks or conducts webinars about his research. And he has helped several course superintendents identify areas for conservation plots and consulted with them on wildflower selection and management.

Andy Jorgensen, director of golf maintenance for On Top of the World in Ocala, said his courses had begun planting wildflowers 15 years ago, so he was enthusiastic to partner with Dale when he was looking for courses to participate in his research.

“We were just planting them and watching them grow,” Jorgensen said in a phone interview. “We thought they were pretty and attractive and doing the right thing on the environmental side, but to see the actual science and course benefits was really key in having him come out and do the study.”

Dale added two wildflower plots full of native Florida wildflowers at one of the three On Top of the World courses in Ocala. Jorgensen said the wildflower areas reduce the amount of maintenance as well as the amount of water and other resources and he said he thinks the growing population of beneficial insects will eventually help reduce the amount of pesticides they use.

Jorgensen says they have continued expanding the wildflower planting in Ocala and that the course superintendent for the 27-hole course in the On Top of the World course in Clearwater has since started converting out-of-play areas to wildflower plantings.

“He keeps looking for more areas where he can add more and more and more,” Jorgensen said.

Dale sees the golf courses as good partners in his urban landscaping work because golf courses put time and resources into maintaining their spaces.

“A lot of conservation efforts similar to this—especially in urban areas—get funding to create [conservation areas], but then the funding runs out or they move on to another project and that conservation habitat just fizzles out and is neglected,” Dale said. “But on golf courses these spaces are maintained. These habitats aren’t going to just fall in disrepair and that’s one real benefit to utilizing golf courses.”

Adam Dale spreading wildflower seeds

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments from Andy Jorgensen.

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