June 20-26, 2016 is National Pollinator Week, and it’s a busy time of the year for bee scientists with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) — and not just for the scientists who study honey bees.
This week, for example, ARS entomologist Jim Cane is visiting the edges of alfalfa seed fields near Walla Walla, Washington to study the alkali bee (Nomia melanderi), which is the only intensively managed ground-nesting bee.
The air will soon become thick with clouds of these native, non-social bees as the alfalfa plants begin to bloom. Tiny “volcanoes” will rise from the soil, marking their nest sites. Walla Walla farmers rely on the bees, and alfalfa leaf-cutting bees, to pollinate their crops’ flowers, which returns a yield of 1,000 pounds of clean seed per acre.
At the field edges, Cane is teaming with technicians from a soil hydrology instrumentation company to measure the flow of water vapor between bee larvae in nests, their pollen provisions and the surrounding soil.
He wants to better understand the insects’ soil-moisture needs, and pass his findings along to farmers, who can then use sub-irrigation to optimize their “bee beds” — the edge-of-field areas that have been reserved for 50 generations of alkali bees. In return, the bees provided a reliable, affordable means of pollinating the alfalfa crop, whose seed is used to grow top-notch hay for dairy cattle.
Read more about Dr. Cane’s work with alkali bees at: