LOWDEN, Wash. — When Mike Buckley walks across his farm in late spring, he has millions of bees growing in the ground beneath his feet.
For him and other Walla Walla County growers, the subterranean “bee beds” represent more than a unique natural occurrence. They provide an economic boost for their farms, which grow about $24 million in alfalfa seed each year, about 25 percent of the total amount produced in the U.S.
Buckley and his neighbors are among only a handful of alfalfa seed farmers in the United States who use ground-dwelling alkali bees to pollinate their crops each year. About 10 farmers in the area between Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities in southeast Washington state raise about 17 million alkali bees each year. Five or six large farms have most of the bee beds, said Douglas Walsh, entomology professor at Washington State University in Prosser, Wash.
But the future is not certain for the farmers, or for the bees. The lack of federal approval for a pesticide that would help control a key pest handcuffs the farmers and threatens the bees. And an effort to widen and reroute a state highway that runs through the area could force some of the bee beds to be moved — a difficult and time-consuming job at best.
Alkali bees, which are smaller than their honeybee cousins that pollinate many crops across the nation, are native to dry regions of the Western U.S. In the late 1940s, as the propagation of alfalfa for seed increased in the region, farmers began managing the bees to pollinate the plants.
The reason: When it comes to alfalfa, alkali bees are super star pollinators. They dramatically increase the yields of the alfalfa stands they pollinate compared with other bees and insects.
“They’re very efficient at ‘tripping’ the alfalfa blossoms,” Walsh said.
Alkali bees trip — pollinate — about 95 percent of the blossoms they visit, Walsh said.
Because of their use of alkali bees, farmers’ alfalfa seed yields here are often 50 percent higher than those of other production areas.
Alkali bees are also strong fliers, able to cover 1.5 miles or more from their underground nests.
Leafcutter bees brought in from Canada supplement the alkali bees but can fly only 300 to 500 feet from their housing, Walsh said. The leafcutters are more easily managed, but the cost of using them has markedly increased as supplies tightened, Walsh said.
“The growers would much rather farm their own free bees, so to speak,” he said.
Touchet, Wash., alfalfa farmer Mark Wagoner stands in a cold-storage room filled with about 2,250 gallons of leafcutter bees. Each gallon contains 10,000 bees. He estimates the room represents an investment of $275,000 in bees.
“That’s why I like alkali bees,” he said, referring to the expense of buying the non-native substitute bees.
Wagoner has worked with the native bees for decades.
“They’re an economic necessity,” he said.
He would like to see more farmers in the area use alkali bees, since they provide a competitive advantage.
“We’re so short of water we can’t really grow any other crop that makes a lot of money,” he said.
There are no negatives to using the alkali bees, Wagoner said.
“The only down side is you’ve got to have more trucks for harvest to haul more seed,” he said. “That’s a good problem, higher yields.”
To raise alkali bees, farmers either maintain natural bee beds in the alkaline soil or wetlands or create artificial beds. To do that, they install a subsurface irrigation system, using PVC pipe with holes punched in it. Water seeps out and migrates to the surface. The soil must be moist, but not too wet.
Growers harrow the bee beds in the late spring and distribute rock salt on top, to draw moisture to the surface and prevent weeds from growing.
Alkali bees emerge at the same time the alfalfa blooms in early June, Walsh said.
The males emerge about a week before females. Mating takes place immediately, and the males die. Female bees continue to forage for four to six weeks. Under optimal conditions, each female produces 20 to 25 brood cells, laying eggs on balls of pollen and nectar. The bee larvae use the rest of summer and into the fall to consume the pollen ball, then overwinter 8-11 inches below the surface of the ground as pre-pupae capable of surviving deep freezes.
As the soil warms in the spring, the bees pupate and then emerge as adults.
Finding safe chemical options
Alkali bees were once much more common around the West, but the use of organochlorine insecticides reduced their numbers. Insecticides are now applied only in the evening, when the bees are not foraging.
The key pest in alfalfa seed is the lygus bug, Walsh said.
“It’s kind of a dance between pest and pollinator,” he said. “The growers tend to want to be able to apply a safe insecticide for the bees, but at the same time they want to control the lygus bugs.”
Last year, the lygus bugs were “horrendous,” he said.
Alfalfa seed farmers are anxiously awaiting registration of the Dow AgroSciences insecticide, Transform, for their crop. The Environmental Protection Agency will likely review it next spring, Walsh said.
Efforts to register Transform early for alfalfa seed use were not successful, Wagoner said.
“That really ticks me off, because the federal government is so worried about honeybees, but they don’t care about native bees,” Wagoner said. “We’re the only people in the United States who use native pollinators on a commercial basis, and the federal government really doesn’t care.”
Finding a safer chemical to control pests isn’t the only concern for alfalfa seed farmers.
The Washington State Department of Transportation is preparing to widen nearby U.S. Highway 12 to four lanes. The plans include moving part of the highway a mile to the north.
There’s enough funding for minor documentation work, but the project is “just about on hold,” said Kerry Grant, design project engineer for the department. More funding will likely come from the state Legislature, and it will take roughly four years to complete the project once it becomes available.
The U.S. Highway 12 Coalition, led by the Port of Walla Walla and regional businesses looking to improve safety and economic vitality, has been so successful lobbying for the project that Grant expects it will ultimately be completed.
The new highway would cut through a portion of Buckley’s land. He and other farmers are concerned that alkali bees will be killed by traffic as they fly across the relocated highway from their beds to the alfalfa fields.
Walsh said research has failed to reduce the potential for bee kills. His team created a large barrier in hopes of coaxing the bees to fly above traffic as they crossed the roads, but about 99 percent of them continued to fly below 7 feet.
Some bee beds the highway would displace are fairly small, but one of Buckley’s is 2.5 acres.
“You just don’t move 2.5 acres of alkali bees,” Mike Buckley’s wife, Sandra, said.
“It’s interesting what they choose to protect and what they choose not to,” she said. “If it’s not on an endangered or threatened list, they don’t care. Here we’ve got a native species that is important to this crop. According to them, we just need to learn to grow another crop.”
The Transportation Department’s Grant said the agency is considering individual damage mitigation to property owners as it purchases property.
Walsh also hopes some bee beds can be moved and re-established. The majority of the bees are away from the highway, he said.
The road project is still awaiting funding, but the state’s real estate acquisition people have begun to make inquiries, Walsh said.
The Buckleys say they appreciate the importance of the road, but hope it can be built with the smallest possible impact.
“I always told them I’d rather have the highway in front of my house instead of in front of my bee bed,” Mike Buckley said.
The state is open to moving bee beds, but growers are reluctant, Walsh said, since they are difficult to establish. It can take at least three years to establish a bee bed, Buckley said, and some never become established.
There also needs to be enough forage. The general rule of thumb is about 1 acre of alkali bees for 200 acres of crop.
Walsh said he may experiment with reducing the costs of establishing new bee beds.
In the meantime, action may be needed to protect the region’s alfalfa seed production and alkali bees, Sandra Buckley said.
“They’re unique, they’re native, they’re worth protecting,” she said.