USU researchers look for alternative to honey bee

In the world of bees, honey bees are often perceived as the ‘it’ specie, while bumble bees and related species are seen as the ‘other guy.’ But the Utah State University Bee Biology and Systematics Lab is hoping to give the bumble bee’s image a makeover.The lab is one of five such research centers in the nation, federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they are the only one that does not study honey bees.Dr. Rosalind James, a bee pathologist at the lab, said, “Our mission is to find alternative pollinators to honey bees by looking at the 3,000 other species of bees found in the U.S., which are mostly located in the Great Basin Desert, including right here in Utah.”The lab began in the 1940s as the Pollinating Insects Research Unit when work was being done on breeding alfalfa. After experiencing poor pollination results with honey bees, researchers started looking at other bees as a solution. The other bee labs mainly research honey bees, including the major current issue of colony collapse disorder, Roaslind said. Researchers disagree on the cause or causes of the problem, which kills very large numbers of domestic honey bee populations. This devastates the agriculture world in terms of pollination of crops and honey production.Martin James, the Cache County apiary inspector and owner of Slide Ridge Honey in Mendon, said the Cache County losses of honey bees is far below the national average of 38 percent, but that local keepers are experiencing mites and the parasite nosema.Rosalind said, “Bee keeping isn’t like keeping livestock where you are dealing with them every day. In fact, they are better left alone, so bee keepers often don’t recognize things or catch in time diseases like nosema and verolimites.”The USU bee lab wants to give farmers and bee keepers an alternative to the popular and yet disappearing honey bee. This means learning how to mass produce and manage other types of bees, as well as possibly the most difficult obstacle of convincing the public to use them.Rosalind said, “Honey bees are appealing because they are the only specie that gives extra honey for humans to cultivate, but other bees have benefits too.”

<strong>The Blue Orchard Bee</strong>

One of such benefits is provided by the Blue Orchard Bee in almond crop pollination. James said this crop has most suffered due to the honey bee disappearance crisis. This is because pollinators are needed for a short window of time every year, and with deficient numbers of honey bees, almond growers get lower returns with fewer bees.The Blue Orchard could help increase numbers of available pollinators as well as give higher yields than honey bees, James said. When the bee was released into local cherry tree orchards, the yields were as much as three times greater than with the Honey bee. Also, since the Blue Orchard bee does not sting, James said, they are great for urban areas.It is important to note that all bee species are experiencing extinctions and disease not unlike that of the honey bee, James said. However, honey bees are not native to North America and have a more difficult time with the climate. The Blue Orchard bee is native toNorth America, providing the benefit of still being able to produce a higher yield in colder years than honey bees can. However, the Blue Orchard bee is only a good option for small fruit producers at this point, James said, because they are difficult to move after being released, unlike Honey bees.Alan Evans is a representative of the Nampa, Idaho, company, Forage Genetics. The company produces alfalfa seeds for farmers, making pollinators key in their success. The USU bee lab receives research grants from

<a href=””>Western Alfalfa Seed Growers Association</a>

, of which Forage Genetics is a member. They help the lab with the logistics of research, providing them materials and growers so they have people to work with.Evans said Blue Orchard bees are a specialized bee in that they are best at pollinating orchards. The bee is an efficient pollinator because of its frequent visits to plants due to the fact that it is not efficient at gathering pollen. On average, the bee requires ten times as many trips to flowers to gather sufficient sources of pollen to provision a single brood cell, or larva, Evans said.Unfortunately, the Blue Orchard bee starts to disappear when it gets hot in the late summer, making them harder to control.”This is why we need the bee lab putting the effort in. This bee would be an excellent pollinator if we can learn to manage them,” Evans said.

<strong>The Leaf Cutter Bee</strong>

Another bee making a big buzz in the agriculture world is the alfalfa leaf cutter bee. Leaf cutter bees got their name because they cut circles out of leaves and fashion the pieces into a cup in the back of a hole in a nest to create a brood cell.Honey bees are not good pollinators for alfalfa because they don’t like that the stamen is on a trigger, Rosalind said.”When the bee enters the flower, the stamen hits them and deposits pollen and they don’t like that,” Rosalind said. “They learn to work the flower and can steal nectar and not trigger pollination.”Alfalfa is now one of the few crops grown in Cache County, and when the leaf cutter bee is used to pollinate the crop, yields are increased tenfold as opposed to using honey bees, Rosalind said. Originally, alfalfa was grown in the southeast U.S. and now is mostly done in the West because the leaf cutter bee is native to the area.Keith Meikle, an alfalfa grower in Smithfield, said it takes 100 honey bees to equal one leaf cutter bee in terms of alfalfa pollination. However, he said the bee is suffering from environmental perils like pesticides sprayed by mosquito abatement.”Even though the bee is native to the area, there are few of them left because of environmental problems like pesticides. They are expensive to replace, and we can only buy them out of Canada,” Meikle said.Evans said the bee is specialized to pollinating alfalfa. The bee only travels about 900 feet from the nest while honey bees can travel up to 3 miles to find pollen. This is an advantage for small crop growers because it keeps cross-pollination in neighboring fields from taking place, keeping genetics pure.Also, the bee is non-aggressive, a common concern for neighbors of bee keepers. Meikle has been using the leaf cutter bee to pollinate his alfalfa for four years.”They don’t sting and are half the size of a honey bee. They will bite you if you’re too close to the nest, but it doesn’t hurt,” Meikle said.Evans said that without the leaf cutter bee, the company couldn’t economically raise an alfalfa crop. Five gallons of bees are placed on each acre; or 50,000 bees per acre, producing 3,000 pounds of alfalfa. Without the bee, the yield drops to 300 pounds.”Our bees are still suffering from disease, and we need the bee lab to help us learn how to get higher bee returns because it is $100 per gallon of bees, so replacing them is not cheap,” Evans said.While other bees may be the answer for many pollination problems, the honey bee producing honey for human consumption has no replacement.Martin said, “The lab is worthy of research dollars. I don’t think the honey bee is the answer to everything, maybe 99 percent of it. Right now bumble bees are very expensive, way more than honey bees. Honey bees work well because they transport well. I can haul them across the country on a truck, so there is a lot of work to be done.”To learn more about the USU Bee Biology Lab, visit

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