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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Native bees, alfalfa seed farmers a N.W. love story

Alkali bees top-notch pollinators for key crop

2 Photos
An alkali bee flies over a hillside the bees inhabit in the Walla Walla Valley.
An alkali bee flies over a hillside the bees inhabit in the Walla Walla Valley. (Doug Walsh/WSU) Photo Gallery

Walla Walla County might just be the only place on Earth where you have to brake for bees.

“You can see the signs here,” says Mike Ingham, as he drives by a 20-mile-per-hour speed limit sign with a smaller sign below stating “Alkali Bee Area.” “There’s actually a county ordinance to slow the cars down who go by here, because a speeding car can kill a lot of alkali bees.”

Ingham is a third-generation alfalfa seed farmer outside Touchet. His family is one of about a dozen in the Walla Walla Valley who are responsible for producing a quarter of the country’s alfalfa seed. That’s a quarter of what’s grown into one of America’s biggest crops — one that feeds cows and livestock the world over. That might sound staggering, but they don’t do it alone: they have millions of tiny, native helpers, thanks to one of the most unique agricultural partnerships in the country.

“This is a really new bee bed, and it is really taking off,” Ingham says, as he drives alongside what initially looks like a barren hillside of parched earth, surrounded by lush, flowering alfalfa fields. But a closer look reveals it’s not barren at all: it’s the bee equivalent of high-density condos. Bees are crawling in and out of thousands of tiny holes.

“If you look up over the horizon there, you can see there’s just a fog of bees,” he says, pointing to the top of the hill. “Nowhere else in the world will you see this.”

The partnership between the farmers and the alkali bees was born out of necessity, with a healthy dose of luck. After the spring snowmelt runs out, this stretch of arid land straddling the Washington/Oregon state line gets basically no water through the summer. As a consequence, most in the area, 22,504 acres to be exact, grows alfalfa seed, rotated out with some wheat, because neither requires summer water. The seed is then sold to other farmers to plant as alfalfa hay to the tune of $42 million, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

When American farmers need pollinators, most ship in European honey bees. But honey bees are total cheats when it comes to pollinating alfalfa’s purple blossoms. They hate the way the stamen bops them on the head when they trip the flower, so they sneak in from the side and steal the nectar without pollinating in return.

Alfalfa seed farmers elsewhere buy alfalfa leafcutter bees from Canada instead, which happily trip the flowers but can get quite expensive. But even they are no match for the native alkali bees, with their mesmerizing iridescent stripes, who range 3 to 5 miles per trip and pollinate alfalfa blossoms like evolutionary professionals.

“What we can boast is that these alfalfa seed growers here have yields on a per-acre basis 50 percent greater than anywhere else that alfalfa seed’s produced in the western United States,” says Doug Walsh, an entomologist at Washington State University who works closely with the region’s farmers. “It’s just a beautiful system. It’s neat that we figured out how to make it work.”

One of Marsh’s predecessors first noticed alkali bees’ talent for pollinating alfalfa in the 1950s and began working with farmers to commercialize it. Like many native bees, alkali bees nest in the ground, preferring salty, moist soil. So some farmers started with ditches at the top of salty slopes, so the water would seep down. Others tried trenches full of rocks, soil, straw and water. In recent years, they’ve refined a system of pumps and perforated PVC pipes that run under the ground, which they then cover with tons of table salt.

“We learn what works and what doesn’t work,” says Ingham’s son, Patrick. “We’re such a minority of farmers that do this thing that we’re all left to work together to make it better.”