Buzzing With Potential
This bee, Osmia ribifloris (on a
barberry flower), is an effective
pollinator of commercial
blueberries and is one of several
relatives of the blue orchard bee,
Osmia lignaria. Similar in
appearance, the blue orchard bee
is also a successful commercial
pollinator that is now being
evaluated for use in a wider
range of crops.
An ice-cold glass of cranberry
juice makes a tasty, refreshing, and healthful drink on a warm spring day. To
produce this zesty fruit, cranberry plants rely on busy insect pollinators to
move grains of cream-colored pollen throughout the berry bog. The domesticated
honey bee, Apis mellifera, has always played a key role in handling that
task at America's commercial cranberry farms.
Today, however, thousands of this country's honey bee hives are besieged by
mites or beetles or by microbes that cause devastating diseases. That means the
hardworking honey beealong with commercial beekeepers and growers of the
crops that rely on this useful insectmight benefit from some help from
other, lesser known pollinators.
Pollinating cranberries is a particularly daunting task. That's because an
average acre of cranberry plants produces about 20 million blooms. Each flower
needs to be visited at least once by an efficient pollinator in order to turn
the white blooms into ripe crimson berries.
The hills are alive with the sounds of
pollinating insects, and that's exactly
what technicians Rebekah Andrus (left)
and Olivia Messinger are netting in a
field near the Wellsville Mountains (Utah).
Cranberry growers are seeking the
expertise of entomologists at the Agricultural Research Service's Bee Biology
and Systematics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, to discover new pollinators that
might be adept at working in cranberry bogs.
With funding from a cooperative research and development agreement between
ARS and the country's largest cranberry-grower cooperativeOcean Spray
Cranberries, Inc., of Lakeville, Massachusettsentomologist James H. Cane
of the Logan lab is investigating bees that pollinate cranberries. Working in a
New Jersey cranberry bog, Cane has found two species of native bees that might
have the requisite pollination prowess.
One, known as Osmia atriventris, belongs to a family of native bees
that nest in holes in stems, branches, fence posts, tree trunks, or other
"We are encouraging this small, steely blue bee to work in cranberry
bogs," says Cane, "by furnishing plenty of nesting materials, such as
wood blocks with holes drilled in them."
Blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria.
Another bee that looked promising
in Cane's preliminary tests: a honey bee-sized leaf cutter called Megachile
addenda. "This bee," says Cane, "makes its shallow home in
the sandy bottom of the cranberry bog, remaining there even when the bog is
flooded for half the year." Cane hopes to acquire a large enough supply of
both bees this year to further test their pollinating know-how.
Help Wanted: Tireless Workers To Boost Crop Yields
Besides cranberry farmers, growers of other crops have also sought out the
Logan bee researchers for help in finding other insects well-suited for
pollinating their fields or orchardsand for ensuring high yields. For
instance, California avocado producers, are looking to the Logan team for help
in overcoming pollination-related problems that are being blamed for
Entomologist Vincent Tepedino examines
a Megandrena enceliae bee specimen.
Their request led Logan
entomologists Jordi Bosch and William P. Kemp to launch a new study using two
commercial avocado groves in southern California as their primary test site.
Bosch and Kemp are comparing the pollen booty collected by several different
bee speciesincluding the domesticated Apis mellifera honey bee and
the big and furry Western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis. They are also
checking the blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria, which gets its common
name from its metallic blue-black color, and the perky, white-banded
Megachile rotundata, or alfalfa leafcutting bee, best known as a superb
pollinator of this field crop.
In addition, Kemp and Bosch are working with colleague Carlos H. Vergara of
the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico, to conduct insect surveys in
avocado groves there. They are identifying native avocado-pollinating insects
that have co-evolved with this exotic crop in its homeland. That might lead
them to species useful in California groves.
Though the primary focus of the research at Logan is on finding superior
pollinators for commercial crops, the scientists have also built an
international reputation for excellence in research on bee biodiversity and
Technician Olivia messinger and
collection curator Terry Griswold observe
newly captured insects.
That's why the U.S. Golf
Association and The Xerces Society, an international, nonprofit conservation
group based in Portland, Oregon, turned to the lab for help with Wildlife
Links, the U.S. Golf Association's innovative effort to increase the diversity
of plants and animals at roughs and out-of-play sites on golf courses.
Logan entomologist Vincent J. Tepedino is determining the best native plant
species and nest-making supplies to use to motivate bees to nest and forage in
specially replanted sections of golf courses. He is doing the work at three
Wildlife Links golf courses in Oregon and Washington.
"Golf courses," says Tepedino, "have a reputation of being
biological deserts. But strategically locating oases of native vegetation on
Wildlife Links courses should boost biodiversity. We expect these plantings to
become havens for native bee species."
Inventory of Pollinators
Other biodiversity and conservation research under way at Logan includes a
multiyear survey of pollinating insects that the National Park Service asked
the Logan scientists to conduct at Pinnacles National Monument in California.
ARS entomologist Terry L. Griswold, who is also curator of the laboratory's
U.S. National Pollinating Insects Collection (see story, page 6), leads this
insect censusthe first of its kind for the site. The intent: to help the
National Park Service identify and protect the monument's native pollinators.
What's more, Griswold is investigating native bees of the rugged canyonlands
of southern Utah, including the newly established Grand Staircase-Escalante
And the Logan scientists were responsible for conducting the most detailed
survey ever completed of the pollinating insects of southern Nevada's Clark
County, where urbanization is speeding ahead at a breakneck pace. Entomologist
Tepedino's scrutiny of pollinators that visit a rare native poppy known as Las
Vegas bear claw, or Arctomecon californica, for example, has shown that
nearly two dozen different pollinatorsbees, beetles, and
waspsfrequent the poppy's bright yellow flowers.
Among the most important of these is Megandrena enceliae. With white
stripes on its dark body, M. enceliae is an unusually handsome bee. Male
bees "might spend their nights sleeping in poppy flowers," says
Tepedino, "and their days seeking females to mate with, all the while
spreading significant amounts of pollen among poppies."
The comprehensive inventory of Clark County's wild pollinators can be used
by planners and land managers to increase the odds that M. enceliae bees
and other important pollinators will continue to flourish in this unique desert
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Crop Production, an ARS National Program (#305)
described on the World Wide Web at
James H. Cane, William P. Kemp, Jordi Bosch, Terry L. Griswold, and
Vincent J. Tepedino are with the USDA-ARS
Bee Biology and Systematics
Laboratory, 5310 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT 84322-5310; phone (435) 797-2524,
fax (435) 797-0461, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Logan bee laboratory on the World Wide Web at
One of the top bee museums
in the world, the U.S. National
Pollinating Insects Collection
requires careful maintenance.
Here, technician Susana Messinger
places labels on samples.
Bee Detectives Identify Puzzling Pollinators
With nearly 1 million bees, wasps, and other insects neatly arrayed in boxes
and trays, the U.S. National Pollinating Insects Collection in Logan, Utah,
ranks as one of the world's top 10 bee museums.
"We have one of the best collections of native American bees, as well
as significant holdings from Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain, and several other
countries," says curator Terry L. Griswold. He oversees the collection as
part of his job as entomologist with the ARS Bee Biology and Systematics
Laboratory at Logan.
Though much of the museum's work takes place indoors, Griswold and his
museum associates regularly make collecting forays of their own.
Bees in the collection range in size from the petite Perdita minima,
a light tan, 1/8-inch-long bee that lives in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, to
the imposing 1.5-inch-long Xylocopa frontalis, or carpenter bee, a brown
or blackish-brown insect from Central and South America. These and other
specimens are safeguarded in some 1,600 drawers at the bee laboratory, located
at Utah State University.
A steady stream of requests to help identify specimens pours into the
laboratory all year. Last year, in fact, the museum identified a
record-breaking 15,100 specimens sent in from all over the world plus an
additional 75,000 specimens collected by Griswold and colleagues.
Some requests come from beekeepers who need help identifying strange bees
that have wandered into wooden blocks meant to house other species.
Agricultural officials who inspect cargolooking for insects that could
threaten America's fields and orchardsrely on the Logan curatorial crew
for help in determining who's who among their insect captures. Griswold and
colleagues, for example, have helped identify insect hitchhikers discovered in
shipping containers or, in one instance, in the cockpit of a jetliner.
Homeowners beleaguered by bees that have taken up residence in the walls of
a bedroom or garage similarly want to know the identity of the unwanted
Researchers eager to learn about bees they've recently collected from places
near and far will often find out from Griswold that they've discovered a new
"We know we have a new species," Griswold says, "when we
can't find an exact match to our museum specimens or to specimens borrowed from
other insect collections around the world.
"When we identify a species as new, we can often help with the
classification, or systematics. Systematics is about the relatedness of one
species to another. It's sort of like figuring out where a relative belongs on
your family tree.
"Sometimes these new discoveries," says Griswold, "can help
us catchand correctold errors in classification made decades ago,
when scientists had to base their classification decisions on much less
information than we have today."
From time to time, Griswold's indoor work includes supervising scientific
illustrators who create elegant, highly detailed, pen-and-ink sketches of
portions of bee anatomy that are critical to distinguishing one species from
"No matter how many times one of those insects turns out to be a new
species," Griswold says, "it's still a real high. You know that you
are holding in your hand a bee that, until now, no one even knew
"New Pollinators Buzzing With Potential" was published in
the May 2000 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.