Leaning on native bees amid the honey bee decline

By Rachel Webber, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

bee-on-lavender-80PULLMAN, Wash. – As the decline of honey bee populations garners international attention, David Crowder and Eli Bloom are turning to a different breed of bees for pollination services.

Their three-year research project will help farmers and scientists understand native bee communities on small-scale farms in western Washington with support from a nearly half-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Scientists really don’t know what an optimal native bee community on a farm in western Washington looks like, so that’s going to be exciting to find out,” said Crowder, an entomologist who studies insect ecology at Washington State University.

Eli Bloom installing a structure at Picardo P-Patch, the oldest urban garden in Seattle.

Bloom, a Ph.D. student who began studies with Crowder a year ago, has been working closely with farmers in rural and urban areas of King and Thurston counties. He has collected about 2,000 bee specimens from two dozen farms – a kind of “bug census” to look at the ecology of bee communities in diversified farming systems: farms and gardens producing a variety of crops year-round.

“Honey bees are an unusual species in that they form these huge colonies, whereas the majority of bees are solitary – building nests in twigs or in the ground, provisioning just enough food and care to support a few offspring,” Crowder said.

The more than 20,000 bee species in the world have a wide range of characteristics, just like other groups of animals. Although some native bees produce honey, the ones Crowder and Bloom work with don’t produce enough honey to collect.

The costs of rearing honey bees to pollinate crops, or even as a hobby, can add up for a small-scale farmer, so many farmers are interested in using native bees as an alternative. Although native bees are often less abundant, Crowder said it is possible for several species of native bees to come together and provide all the pollination services needed during a growing season.

Working directly with farmers, Crower and Bloom will use what they learn about the native bee populations to focus on practical techniques to promote native bee health and communities, including flowering strips with native Pacific Northwest plants, bare ground and other habitats.

“What excites me the most is in the very short term we are going to get a lot of really interesting information about these bee communities,” Crowder said. He’s also hopeful that in five to 10 years the research will have built a foundation that can drive changes in diversified farming systems for both organic growers and growers who are transitioning to organic systems.

For more information about the project, visit http://1.usa.gov/1qK26lX. Learn more about the Crowder laboratory at http://entomology.wsu.edu/david-crowder/.

See this story and other features about organic and sustainable farming in an upcoming issue of WSU’s Green Times. Subscribe at http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/category/green-times/.


David Crowder, WSU Department of Entomology, 509-335-7965, dcrowder@wsu.edu