by Lisa Jones
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!”
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.”
Scientists have found that wild bees enhance the production of a number of crops, including watermelon and canola. They are the primary pollinators of squash and pumpkins. But scientists have also pointed to a larger truth: If wild pollinators are going to work for agriculture, agriculture will also have to work for them.
“Bees need a few different things,” said Sarah Greenleaf, a post-doctoral scientist at UC-Davis who found that when wild bees join honeybees on hybrid sunflowers, production is doubled. “They need flowers for food, nest sites and protection from things that kill them. Farmers can plant flowers to provide food when crops are not blooming, modify pesticide applications, and provide nest sites for bees,” Greenleaf said. “And they can leave some natural habitat near farms. There are lots more bees on farms that are close to natural habitat.”
Scientists have estimated that honeybees add $15 billion to the value of American agriculture each year, while native bees add about $3 billion — a figure considered by some to be an underestimate. But wild bees play an essential part in the health of ecosystems beyond our farm fields. In fact, the Logan bee lab gets about $200,000 in annual funding from federal land-management agencies to research pollination and pollination diversity on public lands.
Providing uncultivated habitat for wild bees flies in the face of Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson’s 1950s advice to farmers, “Get big or get out’’ — advice the California almond growers have apparently taken to heart. The $3 billion a year industry is four times bigger than it was 20 years ago. California now grows more than 80 percent of the world’s supply; nearly 70 percent of the crop is shipped overseas.
“If you’re doing small-scale agriculture, it’s relatively easy to provide uncultivated habitat for bees,” said Strickler. “It’s more difficult for large-scale agriculture. That’s something large-scale agriculture is going to have to think about.”
A cautionary tale is offered by the fate of the alkali bee — the one that caught the attention of Utah alfalfa farmers nearly 70 years ago. In response to an increase in demand for alfalfa seed, some farmers started plowing into the adjacent bee habitat.
“I recall hearing a farmer from Delta, Utah, describe huge flocks of seagulls that followed his plow to feed on the overwintering bee larvae which were strewn behind him like popcorn as he plowed,” wrote Ned Bohart, founder of the Logan bee lab, in Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan’s 1996 book The Forgotten Pollinators.
Insecticides on neighboring crops apparently decimated newly created nesting aggregations of alkali bees in California, says Jim Cane. Such situations contributed to the fact that most alfalfa seed farmers have turned to the easily obtained alfalfa leafcutting bee, which originated in Europe. American growers buy them from Canadian suppliers in five-gallon plastic containers, each containing about 50,000 bees — “as convenient as buying fertilizer,” says Cane. But they aren’t a magic bullet. Alfalfa leafcutting bees aren’t very hardy south of Canada, a good portion of their progeny succumbing to maladies like a fungus called chalkbrood.
“The message is clear,” write Buchmann and Nabhan in The Forgotten Pollinators. “The remaining wildlands and the animals that inhabit them are playing an increasingly important role in maintaining the stability of the world’s food, fiber and beverage supply. We cannot let wildness become too remote from the lives of pollinators, or from our own lives.”
The author writes from Boulder, Colorado.