The lab’s five scientists and eight technicians focus on bumblebees and alfalfa leafcutting bees — the latter of which has largely succeeded the alkali bee as the major pollinator of alfalfa seed — and blue orchard bees, or BOBs, which are candidates for work in almond, cherry, apple and pear orchards. A honeybee-sized, nonaggressive blue-black bee found throughout the U.S., the BOB hardly ever stings. Chet Kendell was cultivating six acres of sweet cherries outside Ogden, Utah, when his suburban neighbors began complaining that they were getting stung by the honeybees he used to pollinate his orchard. So he and his family “made a little bit of a gutsy decision” to switch to BOBs. Research scientists from the Logan bee lab released blue orchard bees in his orchard and set up blocks of wood drilled with holes for them to nest in.
It was a match made in heaven.
A mere 3,000 BOBs accomplished the work of 300,000 honeybees. And the crop yield was “just phenomenal,” Kendell said. “We’d kept good orchard records since 1989, and the first year using BOBs we had 3.2 times what we figured was the highest the orchard had produced.” Good yields continued for the next eight years. Then Kendell sold the orchard and moved to Idaho, where he is looking for another orchard to buy.
Kendell teaches economics when he’s not raising fruit, but when he talks about BOBs, he sounds like a preacher or a speechwriter.
“The honeybee is a great, great generalist,” he said. “I don’t want to denigrate the honeybee. But it’s almost like they’re unionized. They don’t go out before 10 in the morning. When they do go, they go in great masses. They don’t like it when it’s cold or wet, whereas these BOBs will go.”
The only problem Kendell had with the BOBs was they also got to work on nearby peach blossoms, which customarily pollinate themselves. The trees set so much fruit he had to thin them to forestall a crop of plentiful but undersized peaches.
Whether the BOBs will prove similarly helpful to California’s enormous almond industry remains to be seen, but the California Almond Board started supporting research on the BOB last year, and more than doubled its commitment this year to $40,000. (The group will spend another $120,000 for honeybee research.) Almond growers, which are hugely dependent on pollinators, are currently the only farmers directly contributing funding to the Logan lab.
About 70 percent of transportable honeybee colonies in the country come to California’s Central Valley in February to pollinate the almonds, according to Dan Cummings, a third-generation almond grower and chairman of the Bee Task Force of the California Almond Board. Although Cummings is heavily invested in the status quo — he is co-owner of a company called Oliveraz Honeybees — he is cautiously optimistic about the BOBs. He reported that an early BOB performance in an almond orchard was “not quite great,” but adds, “I do think there is some potential.” “This is not going to be an easy thing to initiate,” he said. “It’s going to take a real commitment on the part of the individual farmer.” California almond orchards, which can stretch uninterrupted from horizon to horizon, aren’t the best habitat for native bees, said Karen Strickler, who was an assistant professor of pollination ecology at the University of Idaho before opening “Pollinator Paradise,” which supplies materials and expertise to people wanting to raise solitary and native bees.
“They keep the orchard floor devoid of vegetation, so you get an orchard that’s going to bloom for two or three weeks, and these bees need two months of forage. Where the BOBs do well, it’s where there’s enough forage for that long,” Strickler said. Jim Cane at the Logan bee lab is investigating what kinds of flowers can be planted among almond trees to keep the BOBs in food when the almond blossoms fade, as well as off-site plantings to “ranch” BOBs. Because early research showed that some BOBs from Utah don’t thrive in warmer California, the lab is also researching other geographic sources for BOBs.
Meanwhile, three scientists at a private company called the Almond Pollination Company are running tests of their own as they prepare to supply technology to growers and franchise owners wanting to raise their own blue orchard bees.
Back in Utah, Rosalind James, the director of the Logan bee lab, notes, “There’s been a lot of work done here to get bees from wild to managed. We’ve had thousands of years with honeybees, and 20 years with the BOBs. We’re a little behind.”