Leafcutter Bee (Megachile rotundata) Tour

July 19, 2019 — Hosted by John Wold, Ashlawn Farms, Laurel, MT

Attendees: Sheri Fredericksen, Gordon Clark, Mary Davis, Kyle and Pat Neary, Nan Grant, Carolyn Jones, Sue and Marvin Carter

Ashlawn Farms was established in 1909 and homesteaded by John Wold’s grandfather who moved west from Northwestern Minnesota. The name of the farm comes from the many ash trees located on the property. The family farms several crops, including some on dryland acres located south of Laurel. Leafcutter Bees (Bees) play an important role in the family’s alfalfa seed business which started in 1986.

In early years, a harrow was used to try and open the alfalfa flowers to allow pollination to occur, however, it was a practice that was destructive to the plant. During the 1970’s, farmers realized that bees worked extremely well to pollinate the alfalfa.

The alfalfa seed business is extremely weather dependent. Once the alfalfa plants begin budding, the Leafcutter Bee larvae, which have been stored in tubs during the winter, are placed into screened boxes. 19 Leafcutter 2The temperature in the incubation room is gradually increased to about 85 degrees for the larvae to mature into swarming Bees. Once the Bees begin swarming, they are hungry and ready to go to work. Ideally, if the weather can maintain about 80-85 degrees, the Bees are released to begin pollination of the alfalfa.20 Leafcutter 3

The Bees have no typical “queen;” however, the females do all of the work. The boxes containing the nesting holes are put into trailers and towed to locations where they are spaced out appropriately to pollinate the alfalfa. (The placement of the nesting boxes is 23 Leafcutter 6due to the Bees nesting range of 300 feet.) In total there are approximately 3,000 nesting holes per box. The trays of mature Bees are transported to the field by pickup (in the evening or morning) when the temperature is cool, and placed into the top of the trailers which can house 18, 24 or 28 nesting boxes. The screens are then removed. Once the temperature begins to rise, the Bees begin to swarm as they leave the boxes. The Bees are very weak and the first thing they do is learn to fly and begin to feed to gain strength. Once they build up strength, the females then choose a nesting hole.24 Leafcutter 7

Once a female Bee claims a nesting hole, it is hers and will not be used by another female while the eggs are being laid in the hole. The female Bee lines the hole with “cuts” of leaf material from nearby plants creating a sort of cocoon for depositing the pollen and nectar and laying the egg. The female Bee opens the alfalfa blooms and sucks the nectar and gathers the pollen from several 21 Leafcutter 4flowers on her belly and carries the pollen back to her nesting hole. (Since the females carry the pollen on their dry bellies, each flower they enter to gather more pollen is pollinated by the pollen that has been carried from the previous bloom.) The female Bee scrapes the pollen off inside the nesting hole, then spits the nectar into the pollen creating a paste-like food source for the larvae to feed on prior to diapause.1  When enough pollen and nectar has been collected, she then lays the egg and seals it with cuts of leaf material to protect the egg from predators. Female Bees literally wear their wings off flying into and out of the nesting holes and have a life span of about 5-6 weeks; the males live only about 2 weeks once they fertilize the females.

Approximately 6 gallons of Bees2 per acre are required to adequately pollinate the 22 Leafcutter 5alfalfa blooms. Great care is taken to ensure the alfalfa is not over-pollinated as it can have a detrimental effect to the alfalfa seed yield.

Once pollination is complete, the boxes containing the larvae are retrieved from the field and placed into the incubation room (at a temperature of 50-55 degrees) for the following year.3 The alfalfa plant is sprayed with a chemical defoliator causing the plant to dehydrate so that it is ready to harvest. One pound of alfalfa seeds equals approximately 250,000 seeds. Depending on the amount of alfalfa acres, the family’s total yield can vary year to year.

Leafcutter Bees have a gentle nature and although they have a stinger, would only sting if threatened. A sting is comparable to a mosquito bite. The Bee is renowned for their superior capability with pollinating alfalfa.

I “bee-lieve” a good time was had by all and the tour was very informative.

~ Submitted by Sheri Fredericksen

 

Footnotes

  1. Diapause is a predetermined period of dormancy, meaning it’s genetically programmed and involved adaptive physiological changes, i.e., from the time the larvae are placed into a cool temperature to the time the incubation room temperature is increased to make the larvae mature.
  2. Approximately 10,000 bees equals one pound.
  3. The larvae will remain in diapause until the incubation room temperature is increased the following summer to begin the metamorphosis cycle into mature Leafcutter Bees.
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Helping Bees

Bees and other pollinators are in decline. In the summer 2019 issue of “Permaculture” magazine, there is an article entitled “Bee Roadzz” by Milly Carmichael that offers some hope. The following is a synopsis of that article.

In 2014 in England the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) wrote the 10-year National Pollinator Strategy to improve the state of bees and other pollinating insects and to monitor progress. Yet despite this focus on the pollinators’ plight, bees are in trouble still. The reasons for the decline in population of honeybees and other bees are manifold and complex and include loss of habitat. “…in the UK, in the last 60-70 years we have lost 97% of wildflower meadows, 300,000 km. of established hedgerows and 80% of flower-rich chalk downland.”16 Helping Bees 2

A group of people in the village of Marlborough decided to tackle this problem from a local perspective. Knowing that honeybees can travel up to 4 miles to find food and that their nearest village was 7 miles away, the people of Marlborough met with their neighboring village and set up a “bee road” between the 2 villages. They met with many different people in the town as well as farmers in the adjacent area. The first step was to work with existing resources, then re-assess and take the project further if successful. “Whatever can be done is encouraged, whether it is: reviewing garden plans and choosing more bee-friendly ones; sharing those plans with friends and neighbors; taking part in national monitoring schemes; reducing pesticide use; creating hibernation and nesting habitat for solitary bees; landowners surveying field margins for wildflowers and seeding the less rich areas…planting dozens of honeysuckle cuttings in the hedgerows; or letting a corner of a churchyard grow wilder.” Farmers were encouraged to increase wildflowers in edges of fields as well as in meadows, re-introduce hedgerows, and plant flowering trees.

In addition to increasing food sources in the farmland between the towns, creating bee habitats in yards and gardens was encouraged. “There is growing evidence that allotments, domestic gardens and community green spaces in urban environments offer enormous potential for increasing pollinator populations and protecting genetic diversity.”

17 Helping Bees 3

Now more villages are becoming involved in creating bee roads. The Marlborough group’s goal is to cover the country with “Bee Roadzz” so bees have habitat and food sources continuously available instead of islands of food and shelter surrounded by deserts without these resources.

In Montana our towns are many miles apart, so creating bee roads like these would be hard. But in urban areas we could work to make our yards and gardens more bee-friendly and also work with farmers and ranchers to increase food sources and habitats for bees similar to the English project.

~Submitted by Ann Guthals

Book Review: Our Native Bees

Our Native Bees
By Paige Embry

Say “bee” and most people think of honey bees. There has been a lot of press devoted to the plight of honey bees in recent years as the number of hives declines and people worry about getting crops pollinated by traveling honey bee hives if there aren’t enough to go around.

Our Native Bees is about the “other” bees—the natives. Honey bees are not native to America—they come from Europe. There are over 4000 species of native bees in the U.S. and Canada. The author, in part, wrote this book to answer the question of whether the natives can fill in adequately to pollinate our plants if the honey bees disappear.

our native bees 3.pngThe first half of the book is devoted to the relationship of bees with agriculture and speaks to the question of whether natives can fill in for honey bees, and the second half is about the natives themselves, as well as ways to increase habitat for all bees. Along the way, every page is filled with interesting and captivating anecdotes of Paige’s quest to learn about bees and facts about bees that we wouldn’t ordinarily know. For example, ground nesting and being solitary is normal for native species. Many natives are small, even as small as a grain of rice. Most native bees don’t sting. And the majority of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and the main pollinator is bees.

The book is filled with page after page of gorgeous photos of bees. The photography is absolutely spectacular and as fascinating as the narrative.our native bees 2.png

Both food (think flowers) and nesting sites are important to encouraging healthy native bee populations. When we think of creating a bee-friendly garden, we mainly think of the flowers we can plant. The author points out that providing nest opportunities is just as important (and sometimes can be  “unsightly” to a tidy gardener). There is an important chapter devoted to making golf courses and lawns more bee-friendly in ways that support the bees and are still usable and enjoyable to the people. In the first part on bees and agriculture, she describes how large fields with monocrops, herbicide usage and machine tillage are hard on all kinds of bees and she describes a farm with smaller, more diverse operations and why this encourages diversity of bees as well.

The more we understand the natural world in and around our gardens, the better we can garden in ways that support that world, as well as grow food and provide beauty. Learning about our native bees is a good place to start.

Book Review by Ann Guthals

Importance of Polinators

When people think of pollinators they usually think of bees, but small mammals (including bats), birds, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and even wasps all contribute to the web of life through pollination. These animals are part of this magnificent partnership with plants and we are too. Of course there would be no pollinators without plants to pollinate, so we can use our love of gardening to take an active role in this beautiful dance of life by learning as much as we can to understand how it all works and using this knowledge to increase not only the pleasures of gardening in our own back yards (and our front yards!) and beyond, but also to intentionally and actively play a role in contributing to their survival, and in turn, ours. Knowledge is power.

We could not survive without plants. Plants feed us, and the animals that feed us. Plants provide the oxygen we breath. They stabilize and enrich the soil in which they grow, help keep our waters clear and feed and shelter the wildlife all around us. Pollinators are crucial to the reproduction of most of those plants and are directly responsible for a third of our food. Flowering plants reproduce through the transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower (the stamen) to the female part (the stigma) which then produces seeds. More than 75% of all flowering plants rely on animals for pollination, and thus, their reproduction. Conversely, those same pollinators rely on plants for their survival.

We are all tied together in this intricate ecological community. The ways we can contribute are myriad, but do not have to be difficult. As Master Gardeners, we are uniquely positioned to consciously harness our knowledge and passion for gardening to protect our pollinators and improve the quality of our lives and our community. We can plant whole pollinator gardens (and register them with the Million Pollinator Gardener Challenge (http://millionpollinatorgardens.org/ ) like the Amend Park Community Garden did) or simply incorporate the types of plants that most benefit our local pollinators, bearing in mind that native animals evolved with and are most adapted to native plants. Remember too, that those nasty caterpillars eating our flowers and veggies (and feeding our birds) turn into beautiful butterflies, so try to share a little with them. I beg the caterpillars on my roses everyday not to eat too much! Use your valuable knowledge of Integrated Pest Management to limit your use of chemicals whenever possible. When planting for bees, remember to include plants that flower at different times during the growing season and try to plant in groupings of the same plant if possible. Experiment with plants that attract a variety of pollinators and always share what you’ve learned with your fellow master gardeners. Check your field guides, the library, the extension website, and the cornucopia of other websites on the topic for ideas and specifics.

We don’t have to re-landscape our yards to help our pollinators; the sum of the small changes we all make together in our approach to gardening can make a powerful difference in our quality of life now and the future.

http://pollinator.org/pollinators https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/ http://articles.extension.org/pages/19581/conserving-pollinators:-a-primer-for-gardeners https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hkmw/ downloads/60284.pdf https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/mt/plantsanimals/pollinators/ https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/ http://millionpollinatorgardens.org/ Goulsen, Dave. A Buzz in the Meadow. New York: Picador, 2014 Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home. Portland: Timber Press, 2007

~Submitted by Ann McKean