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Western researcher looking to alternative bees for pollination

HAMILTON, Ohio — What good is a bee if it doesn’t produce honey? Dr. Natalie Boyle and her colleagues at the USDA Agriculture Research Service bee lab in Logan, Utah, are figuring that out.

And Cindy Meyer, director with Ohio State University extension in Butler County, invited Boyle to Ohio recently to talk about her work.

While native bee research in the Midwest is still at ground level, gardeners have begun providing habitat for them in their gardens, and Boyle was surprised at the level of enthusiasm. Five years ago, for instance, Justina Block developed an interest in mason and leaf cutter bees as a hobby and attracted so much attention that she started her own business.

Boyle’s research focuses on improving the management of solitary bees for commercial pollination, including the mason and the alfalfa leaf cutting bees. She is interested in characterizing the impacts of alternative pollination on agricultural production, and in understanding the various environmental stressors that may be contributing to current bee declines.

“We don’t understand very much about how to propagate these bees and the numbers that are required for commercial pollination,” she explained. “The research has been propelled by needs for alternative orchard pollinators in California. We produce 80 percent of the world’s almonds in that state, and there is a lot of reliance on honeybees to meet those needs.”

Producers are currently planting more acres to almond trees. As the supply and health of honeybees is more tightly stretched, researchers are hoping these native bees can bridge the gap between supply and demand.

“Our focus is now on tree fruit in the West,” Boyle said. “this is a developing area of research particularly in the eastern region in the United States. Now that we know that there is so much excitement about it, maybe that is going to lead to more action.

“There is some experimental mason bee research in Virginia, at Old Dominion University on strawberries; they’ve seen that mason bees can improve fruit quality in strawberries.”

She works with blue orchard bees, a type of mason bee in the genus Osmia, meaning they are solitary bees. They are native, rarely sting and earned the name “mason” because they use mud to seal the ends of their nesting tunnels.

“They like to nest in open cavities that are usually about 6 inches deep, maybe about 7 millimeters wide. They are highly effective pollinators of early-blooming flowers and tree fruits because of their natural life cycle. They overwinter as adults in brown cocoons. As the weather starts to warm up, and they are in need of habitat, that is their cue to emerge as adults.”

These bees nest in crevices and holes left by other insects, as well as manmade housing. Block became interested in native bees five years ago and began supplying housing. So many friends asked her about the bees that she started her business.

This spring she offered to provide habitat to the Cincinnati Zoo, Green Acres Foundation, Spring Grove Cemetery and Bernheim Forest in Kentucky if they would introduce education programs. They all accepted.

Block provides housing with natural grass reeds. The bees lay their eggs in the reeds; the eggs hatch, feed on the pollen and nectar and pupate inside a cocoon. In October, she takes the reeds inside, splits them open, washes the silk cocoon and stores them in a cool place. In the spring she releases them.

“There is so little research on these bees and the season is so short – six weeks a year,” she said. “They’re a spring bee; they’re the first ones to emerge.”