Forum—Blue Orchard Bees and Other
New Pollinators for Agriculture
Life is turning out to be a bowl of
cherriesactually, bushels and bushels of the sweet, plump fruitfor
orchardist Chet Kendell in North Ogden, Utah. Last year, while fellow
sweet-cherry growers were reeling from the financial blow of low yields,
Kendell was reaping an impressive harvest.
His secret? Blue orchard beeslikely the world's best pollinators for
cherry orchards and several other crops as well. Under an agreement with the
ARS Bee Biology and Systematics
Laboratory in Logan, Utah, Kendell is learning how to capitalize on the
pollinating skills of this native insect, known to scientists as Osmia
Named for their iridescent-blue bodies, blue orchard bees live in every part of
the United States. Though blue orchard bees are already being sold commercially
for pollination, the familiar Apis mellifera honey bee, used here since
the 1600s, is still America's dominant commercial pollinator.
For the Logan scientistssituated appropriately in the nation's Beehive
Statethe collaboration is one of their largest tests of the blue orchard
bee's pollinating savvy in a commercial orchard.
The Kendell project is one part of a newly expanded effort to move research
results out of the lab and into fields and orchards. The outreach
effortsincluding three new cooperative research and development
agreementshave garnered the team a regional award for excellence in
technology transfer from the Federal Laboratory Consortium.
The Logan scientists' emphasis on technology transfer could not have come at a
better time. By using the pollination services offered by the blue orchard bee,
growers and beekeepers might be able to offset the losses of A.
mellifera honey bees that have been felled by disease or parasites or edged
out by competition from invasive Africanized honey bees.
For more than 20 years, the Logan laboratory has been the premier source of new
information on how to turn wild blue orchard bees into easily managed,
commercially viable pollinators. The newest and best of that knowledge is being
distilled into a new handbooknow in draft stageon how to rear this
Meanwhile, collaborations like the one with orchardist Kendell give scientists
and growers alike the opportunity to challenge the bees' skills.
Other team projects may similarly make it simpler, faster, and easier for
beekeepers and growers to routinely enlist native bees for pollination. The new
cooperative research and development agreement between ARS and International
Pollination Systems, Inc., of Caldwell, Idaho, for instance, aims to streamline
use of the friendly blue orchard bee as an almond pollinator.
Earlier experiments have already shown that it takes only about 400 nesting
females of this species to pollinate an acre of almonds. That same job requires
two and one-half to three hives of honey bees, each housing thousands of
Blue orchard bees normally emerge from overwintering in March or Apriltoo
late to pollinate almond trees' February blooms. Now, in cooperation with
International Pollination Systems, the scientists are trying to nudge the bees
out of dormancy a few months ahead of their natural schedule.
To do that, the researchers are using a trick that has worked perfectly in
laboratory tests. At a key stage in insect development, they change the
temperature at which bees are incubated, hoodwinking them into emerging 2
months earlier than usualand just in time to visit the pollen-laden
almond flowers. New tests will reveal whether International Pollination Systems
and other producers of bees can use that approach successfully in their
In other work, the Logan researchers are tackling some not unexpected problems
that have occurred in management of alfalfa leafcutting bees (Megachile
rotundata). This research includes developing new tactics to protect these
peppy bees from chalkbrood disease. Currently, American beekeepers have
essentially been forced to look to Canadian sources for uninfected stock. Other
experiments focus on reducing death rates of bee eggs and wormlike larvae.
The story on page 4 in this issue of Agricultural Research tells more
about the Logan lab's outstanding work. These studies and others are designed
with the help of growers and beekeepers who give us suggestions and keep us
informed of their concerns and priorities.
We welcome this ongoing exchange.
S. Karl Narang
ARS National Program Leader
Medical and Veterinary Entomology
"Forum" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.