When it comes to pollinating alfalfa, seed producers usually struggle with problems caused by weather, disease, pesticides and input costs. Some, like Tim Wagoner of Touchet, WA, are finding solutions by promoting native bee species.

Wagoner relies primarily on native alkali bees to produce his alfalfa seed – a decision he says pays off.

“Most people outside the valley use leafcutter bees,” he explains. “They take a lot of management; they’re very expensive. We buy 2 gallons of leafcutter bees per acre as a backup, but without the alkali bees, we’d be buying 4, 5 or 6 gallons an acre.

“On one field with no leafcutter bees, we got over 1,200 lbs of seed per acre, totally pollinated by alkali bees,” says Wagoner, who farms 1,800 acres with his parents, Mark and Sharla.

Alkali bees are also easier to manage than leafcutter bees, he says. They need established bee beds where a surface crust of salt or alkali helps preserve moisture in the below-ground nests.

Wagoner controls moisture levels using PVC pipe with drip holes below the soil surface.

Bee beds range from 2 to 10 acres in size. They don’t, however, displace much crop production, since alkali bee beds are typically situated on marginal land. A well-established colony can have more than three million nesting females per acre.

Habitat loss is always a risk in using alkali bees. Cultivation, grazing, even disturbance by off-road vehicles can damage bee beds. Pesticide application can also destroy bee populations. To protect his bees, Wagoner applies insecticides at night when bees are in their nests.

“Once bee beds are in, about all I do is monitor moisture,” says the seed producer, who estimates his alkali bees cost about $5,000 per year compared to the typical $100,000 annual cost of leafcutter bees.

“The price of leafcutter bees has quadrupled, so we’re trying to expand our bee beds and encourage population growth,” he says. “They give us farmers a huge advantage. In our area, they give us some of the best yields in the world.”

Congress made native bee preservation a priority in the 2008 Farm Bill, leading USDA to establish multiple programs to encourage bee habitat. Changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) allow it to use its matching grants and technical assistance toward that goal.

Producers who use native pollinators can receive higher payments per acre for new Conservation Reserve Program contracts. As a result, they have established 41,000 acres of new pollinator habitat in 2010, according to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit, wildlife-protection organization.

Anyone interested in restoring native bee habitats can contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service at www.nrcs.usda.gov, the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Work Group at www.agpollinators.org, or the Xerces Society at www.xerces.org/Pollinator.

Contact Wagoner at wtfalfalfaseed.com.