Cranberry-Pollinating Bee Wears a
A mustached mud bee, Anthophora abrupta.
Every child knows bees live in hives, make honey, pollinate flowers, and
deliver a sting if provoked. But if pollinating cranberries is the goal, there
may be another, better-suited bee.
Consider Anthophora abrupta, or the mustached mud bee, so called
because the males use a pheromone-soaked mustache to woo females in the spring.
"Solitary bees are valued only for their skill as pollinators,"
says Agricultural Research Service
entomologist Suzanne W.T. Batra, who is at the ARS Bee Research Laboratory in
Beltsville, Maryland. "They do make honey from nectar, but they make only
a little. And they mix it with pollen and their own body secretions to make
beebread for their young."
Mustached mud bees are truly as American as the cranberries they may someday
be used to pollinate. These native bees live in dry clay walls and cliffs, not
in hives. The adults fly during early summer; the rest of the year, they live
inside nests. They look like small, fast-flying bumble bees.
Unlike honey bees, whose reproduction is a privilege for the queen, every
solitary bee female has a chance at motherhood and the work of gathering food.
They are called mud bees because females build chimneys of mud at the nest
entrances. Mud bees are not as likely to sting as honey and bumble bees.
Harold E. Bechmann, who is with the University of Delaware, was helped by
Batra with testing these bees as pollinators for cranberry bogs. He explains
why they're more gentle than honey bees.
"Mustached mud bees don't have the large investment of calories,
pollen, and wax that honey bees put into a hive," Bechmann says. "A
hive is a honey bee's life."
Obviously, these bees were interesting to scientists, but would they be
pollinating pros for cranberries? Wet, cold cranberry bogs do not seem like fun
places for any bee, but mustached mud bees are active in June during cranberry
bloom. The trick would be building up a large enough population and getting the
bees to stay--in spite of the cold, dampness, and wind.
Together, Batra and Bechmann gathered bees for the experiment. Some came
from Bechmann's collection, which he found in an old stone farmhouse near
Elkton, Maryland, that was built in 1735--when clay was used as mortar for
homes. Batra gave him more bees that she found nesting in an old adobe chicken
coop near Baltimore.
"These bees are such homebodies," says Bechmann. "It's hard
to get them to move to new manmade adobe abodes. The way they see it, what was
good for the last generation of bees is still good enough for them."
Batra gave Bechmann insights on making the bees more comfortable in their
new homes. Wood posts supporting blocks of dry clay nests seem to work.
The first year met with little success, the second year went better, and
each year the bees seem more adept at life in the bog.
"The land's flat, there're no trees, and the wind blows like
mad," says Bechmann. "But I've checked mustached bees we've released
in the bogs and, sure enough, the females had gathered cranberry pollen on
Future yield data will show how effective these bees are as pollinators,
Batra says. "Cost and ease of management will also be important
factors."--By Jill Lee,
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
Suzanne W. T. Batra is at the USDA-ARS
Laboratory, Bldg. 476, BARC-East, 10300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD
20705-2350; phone (301) 504-8384, fax (301) 504-8736.
"Cranberry-Pollinating Bee Wears a Mustache" was published
in the September 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click
here to see this issue's table of