Could Blue Bees Be Better For Northwest Crops?

Osmia lignaria or the blue orchard bee visits a blossom. While it won’t make honey, this bee is a superior pollinator than the honey bee. Credit: Natalie Boyle/US Department of Agriculture.
Osmia lignaria, or the blue orchard bee, visits a blossom. While it won’t make honey, this bee is a superior pollinator than the honey bee. CREDIT: NATALIE BOYLE/USDA

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In Bothell, Washington, Jim Watts has a busy operation.

He’s the owner of Watts Solitary Bees, and this year, he’s propagated 1.5 million blue orchard bees, also known as a mason bee. His father started the business in 1965 with leafcutter bees. But about 10 years ago, Watts started using blue orchard bees as well.

Unlike honey bees, blue orchard bees … well, don’t make honey. They also don’t work in colonies. And in the decade Watts has been working with them, he’s never been stung, but he says their sting is more like a mosquito bite.

These flying beauties are special because they can work in cooler climates. In a cold, wet spring they’re still able to fly and pollinate, which honey bees can’t do. And while honey bees don’t like working with certain crops like pears, blue orchard bees take well to them.

And they’re better pollinators, too.

“The mason bee, when she goes from flower to flower, a lot of the pollen falls off. So she’s really bad at collecting pollen, which makes her a great pollinator,” Watts says. “Almost every single bloom she visits ends up getting pollinated – much better than the honey bee in terms of efficiency.”

Jim Watts, the owner of Watts Solitary Bees, in the cooler where he keeps bees before they go out to farmers. On the rack behind him are 600,000 cocooned blue mason bees. These bees will travel to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to pollinate meadowfoam.   CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB

Jim Watts in the cooler where he keeps bees before they go to farmers. On the rack are 600,000 cocooned blue mason bees, which will travel to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to pollinate meadowfoam.
CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB

Despite their abilities, the biggest problem has been having enough bees to go around. Watts bred and raised two million bees this year and delivered them to 10 farms along the West Coast. Next year he hopes to have four to five million.

During blossoming season, farmers need roughly a thousand blue mason bees per acre. But the problem is that in California alone, there are over a million acres of almonds. So there’ still quite a ways to go to making the mason bees a widespread crop pollinator in the West.

Natalie Boyle is a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Logan Bee Lab in Utah. She has high hopes for blue mason bees.

“It’s really cool that [blue mason bees] are a native species,” Boyle says. “I think people don’t realize honey bees are non-native to the United States and were brought over from Europe. So it’s cool to rely on naturally occurring species to perform these important pollination services.”

Boyle explains that having more diverse pollinators is vital during this time when honey bees are under stress from pesticide exposure, varroa mites and other challenges.

 A young blue orchard bee crawls on Jim Watts’ hand. Watts propagates the bees in these plastic containers. On warm days, the bees chew out of their cocoon and fly off to find food. Males will live two weeks while females live about six weeks.  CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB

A blue orchard bee crawls on Jim Watts’ hand. He propagates the bees in plastic containers. On warm days, the bees chew out of their cocoon and fly off to find food. Males will live two weeks while females live about six weeks. CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB

Next year, Boyle’s team will launch trials in some of Washington’s sweet cherry orchards.

But the cost of blue masons is still too high for some farmers. Five years ago, each one went for $1 each. This spring, Watts is selling them to farmers at $0.30 each. He hopes that next year, the price will be even lower so his blue mason bees will be on par with the cost of honey bees, and more farmers will use them to pollinate crops.

“There could be a day where everybody is like ‘What do you don’t use blue orchard bees? You can’t have an orchard without those!’ Watts says. “Maybe that won’t happen in my lifetime but I could see a day where that happens.”

Copyright 2018 Northwest Public Broadcasting

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