By MATTHEW WEAVER
A Touchet, Wash., alfalfa farmer has received a national honor for his efforts to help alkali bees.
The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign and National Association of Conservation Districts recently awarded Mark Wagoner the Farmer-Rancher Pollinator Award.
Wagoner received the award for his work with Washington State University entomologist Douglas Walsh to research best management practices for the alkali bee.
Alkali bees pollinate several crops, primarily alfalfa and wheat, in the Touchet area.
According to the organizations, in the 1990s a new insecticide caused an alkali bee population crash in the area. Today, the local population has rebounded, reaching an estimated 20 million female alkali bees.
Wagoner attributed the growth to registration of a new insecticide.
"It's brand-new chemistry that will not kill bees at all, but will kill aphids and lygus bugs," the primary pests when bees are pollinating fields, Wagoner said.
Wagoner is quick to credit the entire Touchet alfalfa seed-growing community with helping alkali bees. Roughly 10 farmers are diligent about not spraying insecticides that could affect the bees, or they spray at night, he said. They worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State Department of Agriculture to register the insecticide.
Wagoner and other farmers also build artificial nests called bee beds. They require use of underground irrigation, since bees like moist conditions.
"That's why it's a community-wide effort to raise these things," Wagoner said. "One guy with a spray could really kill a bunch of alkali bees."
WSU's Walsh said Wagoner provides effective leadership for Washington alfalfa seed growers.
"Earning Mark's trust in the early years was instrumental to the success of my research program and gaining access to the rest of the growers," Walsh said. "Mark opened up with me and shared some of his trade secrets. It is a great working relationship that has become a personal friendship."
A long-time alfalfa grower, Wagoner has photos of himself as a 5-year-old on a bee bed with his father.
"I've seen them go way up in population and way down," he said. "It really hurts us economically when they go down. When they come back up, it makes you feel really good, not only economically but just the fact it means it's taken care of."