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Hive you heard about the Pacific Northwest’s native bees?

by Timber Press on February 8, 2018

in Natural History

Burrowing in cow patties and snail shells, pollinating a plant that hits back, and crossing the road to get to the other side—the native bees of the Pacific Northwest are as eccentric and unique as the people that call this region home. Learn more about these Portlandia pollinators from Paige Embry and Our Native Bees: America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them.

Osmia lignaria, the blue orchard bee, or BOB, is gaining popularity as an orchard pollinator. They are much better pollinators of early fruit than honey bees—a few hundred female BOBs can pollinate just as well as a whole hive of honey bees with 10,000 or more workers. A BOB would never be mistaken for a honey bee out in the field, even though they are similar in size. BOBs are shiny and black, and their three body parts are very round.

BOBs are native to Oregon but are only one of around 135 species of Osmia in North America—and those other Osmia are surprisingly different from BOBs. They tend to the same mesomorphic build but come in different lengths and colors. Where Osmia may choose to nest ranges from the normal to the unexpected—rose stems, beetle burrows, shallow holes underground, mud homes above ground, and even dry cow patties.

A few even choose to live in snail shells. Using snail shells is so common for some European Osmia that they have a name for them—helicophyle Osmia. Different species treat their snail houses differently: one closes off her house with chewed-up strawberry leaves, while another uses rabbit or sheep dung. A versatile and pragmatic group, these Osmia bees.

Out near Touchet, Washington, not too far from Walla Walla, lie acres of alfalfa fields. The purpose of these fields is to generate the seeds that other farms will use to grow alfalfa plants for feeding livestock. To produce those seeds, the alfalfa growers need bees.

Honey bees don’t like pollinating alfalfa. The stamens are held under tension between two of the petals. When a bee goes to stick its head in to get the goodies, the alfalfa stamens fly up, whacking the bee in the head. Of course, the plant has a reason for this assault: to load the bee up with pollen. But honey bees just aren’t tolerant of being repeatedly knocked upside the head. Fortunately for the alfalfa growers, other bees are, including the native Nomia melanderi, or Alkali bees.

Alkali bees are solitary; each bee has its own hole in the ground, but they aren’t total loners. Tens of thousands may nest together in the same little stretch of land—with their front doors side by side like apartment dwellers. Alkali bees are very persnickety about the soil in which they’ll nest, and growers around Touchet work to maintain good nesting grounds and even put in special beds for the bees. Sometimes a road runs between the nesting beds and the alfalfa fields, and so across the road the bees go. The problem is that alkali bees tend to fly close to the ground, hugging the terrain like a good sports car. This puts the bees at deadly risk when crossing the road, and so during flying time around Touchet, heed the signs—“Drive slowly, save a bee.”


Paige Embry has a BS in geology from Duke University and an MS in geology from the University of Montana. She has worked as an environmental consultant, taught horticulture and geology classes, and run a garden design and coaching business. She has written articles for Horticulture, The American Gardener, and other magazines. Visit her at paigeembry.com.


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