Honeybees have been dying in record numbers, yet many commercial crops depend on them for pollination. Entomologists who have been struggling to find an alternative now report that another bee might fill the void.
The blue orchard bee, also known as the orchard mason bee, is undergoing intensive study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture pollinating insect research unit at Utah State University at Logan. James Cane, an entomologist there, says a million blue orchards are now pollinating crops in California. Like honeybees, the species can pollinate a variety of flora, including almond, peach, plum, cherry and apple trees. Unlike honeybees, however, they tend to live alone, typically in boreholes made by beetles in dead trees. In cultivation, the bees will happily occupy holes drilled into lumber or even Styrofoam blocks.
The blue orchards rarely sting and, because of their solitary nature, do not swarm. They are incredibly efficient pollinators: for fruit trees, 2,000 blue orchards can do the work of 100,000 honeybees. Their biggest drawback is that beekeepers can increase their population only by a factor of three to eight a year; a honeybee colony can expand from several dozen individuals to 20,000 in a few months.
“We’re still in the development stage” of applying the USDA’s research, says David Moreland, CEO of AgPollen, which is supplying blue orchard bees to the California almond industry. Last season local almond growers were paying up to $300 for enough honeybees to work an acre, 10 times what they paid a decade ago, making the blue orchard bees cost-competitive, albeit only barely.