Road may sting alfalfa seed farmers
Proposed change to highway could devastate native pollinators
By MATTHEW WEAVER
A plan to build a new stretch of highway in southeastern Washington state has alfalfa seed farmers worried about its impact on the alkali bees they depend on for pollination.
The Washington Department of Transportation plans to move part of Highway 12 about a mile north of its existing route between the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla in an effort to improve safety.
The move could, however, hurt the population of alkali bees, a native pollinator that alfalfa seed growers in the area rely on. The bees are smaller than honeybees and considered the most effective alfalfa pollinator.
Growers have learned to manage them, creating bee beds in dry creek beds, said Doug Walsh, Washington State University professor of entomology. He is studying the potential effect on alkali bees near the new road site as part of a four-year $232,000 WSDOT-funded study.
This year Walsh is building a series of barriers to mimic the impact of the four-lane highway to see if bee behavior can be modified. He's examining the distance the bees fly, how high over the road and if their behavior can be modified to avoid traffic.
"We've got some preliminary results there, and the results don't look that great," Walsh said.
About 17 million bees are managed by growers in the Touchet, Wash., area.
"The alkali bees provide a production advantage in that Walla Walla area none of the other alfalfa seed-producing areas has," Walsh said.
If more alkali bees are killed by traffic, growers will face the additional cost of buying bees.
About 16 growers produce alfalfa seed on 10,000 to 12,000 acres in the area. Walsh said about a third of producers would be affected by the proposed change, including one farmer whose house is in the path of the new road.
Mike Buckley, who grows alfalfa seed on roughly 2,600 acres in the area, said about 2,000 to 3,000 total acres would be affected.
The growers have offered an alternative proposal using land closer to the old highway, and WSDOT is studying to see if that would be possible, Buckley said.
"Trying not to go right down the middle of these alfalfa fields where we do have alkali bees would help us a lot," Buckley said. "If they could stay out of the primary center of the alkali bee beds, I think we could live with it."
Kerry Grant, design engineer for the project, said two farmers' bee beds are impacted. WSDOT would pay fair market value for the land and for damage to the property.
"We sure hope we're going to be able to come to a very amicable agreement with the growers," he said. "We don't want to hurt people and their livelihood."