Native hum

As honeybees vanish, farmers turn to the wild pollinators in their back yards

  • A bumblebee

  • An alfalfa leafcutting bee on an alfalfa blossom

  • A blue orchard bee on an apple blossom



In 1940, alfalfa-seed farmers in the desert of central Utah made an interesting discovery: The primary pollinator of their crop was not the honeybee, but the alkali bees that nested in the region’s salt flats. For all its status as the workhorse of American agriculture, the European honeybee didn’t really like foraging in alfalfa. But alkali bees loved it, pollinating some 5,500 flowers daily. Farmers lucky enough to live next to them were raising three times more alfalfa seed per acre than those who didn’t.

From Utah to Washington state, farmers started transplanting thousands of cubic feet of soil with alkali bee nests to aid in the production of alfalfa seed — a hugely important crop because the alfalfa grown in hayfields produces almost no seed on its own. The largest managed alkali bee nesting bed is now five acres in size and is home to more than 5 million bees.

“It gives me conniptions, it’s so big,” says Jim Cane, an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. “It’s just roaring with bees. The ground is shimmering for several acres.” Cane says these farmers harvest at least 20 percent more seed than needed to break even.

The humble alkali bee had turned the attention of a whole sector of commercial farmers away from the European honeybee. It was the first time this had happened. It would not be the last.


While honeybees spent thousands of years honestly earning their place in our hearts with their honey production, easily manipulated colonies, generalist pollinating tendencies and heroic work ethic, their wild cousins lived in obscurity. As the pioneers swarmed this country, dubbing Utah “The Beehive State” and opening newspapers with names like The Sacramento Bee, 3,000 to 4,000 species of wild bees buzzed the landscape, largely unnoticed.

Native bees do not typically share the desire of the honeybee to live in a small space with 10,000 members of the family. They do not produce honey to keep their colony fed through the winter. These bees have different habits, some of them so singular that they make scientists laugh out loud with puzzlement. The female of one species likes to burrow nine feet under a sand dune to lay a single egg. Another chews away at sandstone walls to make its tiny nest. Yet another hangs on the stalks of dead plants at night, alone and balled up, resembling a berry. Some develop fabulous coloration — one orchid bee is metallic gold with a blue abdomen and a red and gold thorax.

And they pollinate plants, often better than European honeybees. The natives’ pollinating abilities are attracting more attention because the honeybee on which most American agriculture depends has run into a series of problems: It started mating with aggressive Africanized bees that swept over the border from Mexico in 1990, rendering its children often impossible to work with. It is vulnerable to parasitic mites and fungi, weakened by insecticides and disease. In the past several months, headline after headline has announced a dramatic drop in honeybee populations due to a mysterious malady called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Wild bees don’t mate with Africanized bees, nor do they suffer from the same diseases and mites that afflict honeybees. There has never been a better time to develop wild bee pollination talent for use in American agriculture. The bee lab in Logan — one of five federal research labs devoted to bee research, and the only one that doesn’t deal in honeybees — is doing just that.

“There’s no real danger of the honeybee going extinct,” said Jamie Strange, an entomologist who is preparing to spend the afternoon trapping bumblebees near his lab in Logan to study for use in greenhouses and tomato production. “But it’s like investing. Diversify your portfolio. Diversify!”

Jun 12, 2007 05:15 PM

The importance of bees.

Jul 18, 2007 04:23 PM

Thank you for the timely and informative article on the role of native bees in pollination (HCN, 6/11/07). It is important for farmers, gardeners and the general public to learn about how the 4,000 species of bees native to North America play a crucial part in the pollination of food crops. It was interesting to note that blue orchard bees have such increased rates of pollination efficiency compared to honeybees. Few people know that native bees can effectively increase pollination of crops like almonds, apples, raspberries, melons and squash, among others, by up to 90%. It may also surprise some that a number of crops rely exclusively on native pollinators to set fruit. Besides their affinity for fair weather, honeybees lack the flight muscles for accomplishing “buzz pollination,” a method of sonically discharging pollen required by crops like blueberries, peppers, and tomatoes. A variety of other specific plant-pollinator interactions have been documented, revealing that flowering plants and their insect pollinators have a long history of co-evolution.

So much remains to be learned about the contributions of wild bees. And in the face of continuing habitat loss, agriculture is in a position to lose what it does not even know it has. The Wild Farm Alliance recently published a briefing paper called “Wild Pollinators: Agriculture’s Forgotten Partners.” Available on their website,, this informative piece suggests ways of encouraging native pollinators, chronicles stories of farmers who have successfully done so, and features a list of crops that benefit from native bees. The lessons we are learning from pollinators underscore society’s need for the wild. Let’s hope that knowledge inspires us to change the way we grow our food and care for our ecosystems. Thanks again for such a relevant article.

Joanna Johnson
Wild Farm Alliance
Watsonville, CA

Nov 12, 2007 11:15 AM

Thank you; I am an amateur gardener,in Oregon,and my fruit trees get pollinated totally by the wild bees that live on my place.(I let it grow pretty wild and uncut.)This last spring,I did not have the "bee colony collapse" that the commercial farmers were having,because of this.i agree,wild bees are where it's at. I do not even know, exactly what kind of bees they are,just that I give them plenty of wild land to live on,and they hum around all the wild blackberry bushes,with tons of white blossoms and flowering fruit trees,and they pollinate. I've also been advised,to plant more flowers for them, which is what they love,so I am planning on doing that to the place. I also read that bumble-bees keep their hives in the wild,so they need that wild space to live in.  

 This huge bee colony collapse is just a symptom of the failure of agri-business. Many indicators say that smaller farms are much more successful,in the long run, than the huge monster ones.I agree, agribusiness has been completely ignoring the whole eco-system,and acting like bees are just little machines,to be manipulated, used,abused,and mistreated.Bees are NOT LITTLE MACHINES. NO way. It is no wonder the huge bee-keeping systems have broken down,considering just how horribely their bees are abused. Any huge agribusiness that treats their bee-hives,and bees, that badly deserves, rightly so,to eventually have the whole thing blow up in their faces. 


   Consider this huge colony collapse, as "The Revenge of Nature."

   sincerely, "Has Always Loved Bees,and Hates Seeing them Tortured to Death" in Oregon