Native hum

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

  • A bumblebee

    JAMES STRANGE, USDA-ARS BEE BIOLOGY AND SYSTEMATICS LABORATORY
  • An alfalfa leafcutting bee on an alfalfa blossom

    THERESA L. PITTS-SINGER, USDA-ARS BEE BIOLOGY AND SYSTEMATICS LABORATORY
  • A blue orchard bee on an apple blossom

    THERESA L. PITTS-SINGER, USDA-ARS BEE BIOLOGY AND SYSTEMATICS LABORATORY
 

 

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!”

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...