Native bees have impact in county

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 5:54 PM
Photo Courtesy of Bob Hammon
A sweat bee gathers pollen from a flower in this undated photo. Research is being done on the relationship between native bee populations and native plants and grasses in places such as Montezuma County. The sweat bee is an example of a bee native to the Four Corners.

Research into the relationship between native bee populations and native plants and grasses is poised to have an impact in Montezuma County.

The research is focused on domesticating bees native to the Four Corners, rather than the more common honey bee.

“Honey bees are not a native bee,” said Bob Hammon, area extension agent with Tri-River Area Colorado State University Extension office, based in Grand Junction. “Most people assume that when you talk about bees, you are talking about honey bees. But there are hundreds and hundreds of native bees in the area.”

The bees studied by Hammon and U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Jim Cane, based in Logan, Utah, have a wide range of characteristics, but all vary greatly from honey bees.

“Honey bees are a social bee,” Hammon said. “They have a queen and a colony. The other bees are solitary bees, and many are ground-nesting bees.”

A major difference between the two types of bees is in the use of pollen. Honey bees gather pollen to make honey. Other native bees use collected pollen as a food source for their larvae, turning the pollen “into the next generation of bees,” Hammon said.

Honey bees were brought to the United States by immigrants travelling from Europe and Asia, according to Hammon. The species has been domesticated for centuries.

“Native bees tend to be ignored,” he said. “There are only a few species that have been domesticated, but they are absolutely essential. All they do is pollinate, and without pollinators we wouldn’t have our native plants. They are really important and fascinating to study.”

Hammon has been studying the impact of native bees on seed production at the local farms of Southwest Seeds, owned by Walter Henes, for the better part of a decade.

“We’ve been surveying native bees with Walter for quite a few years,” Hammon said. “We’re looking at the pollinators and what species of native bees are necessary to set seed. It has been a really successful project, and it has been good to see it thrive in Montezuma County.”

New native bee studies have been undertaken to specifically correlate with needs expressed by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The two federal agencies are working to generate commercial amounts of native seed for grasses and wildflowers that can be used to reseed areas that have been destroyed in wildfires. Finding the right balance of plant and pollinator is essential for producing large amounts of seed.

“My part of the project is to understand the pollination needs of the wildflower the BLM and forest service wants to put in production,” Cane said. “We are looking at that so pollination is not the weak link.”

Cane is specifically working with a species of bee known only by its Latin name, “Osmia sanrafael.”The bee is ideal for the domestication study due to its solitary nature and ability to be moved from one location to another.

“It is not a social bee, and that is good,” Cane said. “We can manage it in nesting straws and move it around from field to field.”

The purpose of the project is to find a practical means of providing stable pollination for native grass and flower growers in the Four Corners, Cane said.

“We are really trying to find something really practical,” he said. “You have to be sure you have the right bees present. There is a real wide range and list of flowers we are using to see how it works with the bee.”

Hammon and Cane are looking for producers in Montezuma County who would be interested in experimenting with the bees. The county is an excellent case study for the project because many of the grasses and flowers federal agencies are interested in are native to the area.

“A number of the plants are in your area,” Cane said. “One of them is the firecracker penstemon, and then you also have northern sweet vetch. There are so many species in Montezuma County.”

Candidates for the research project would have a degree of familiarity handling bees, according to Cane.

“We are looking for people who would be successful in multiplying them,” he said. “Specifically, we are seeking those who have had experience managing another genus (of bees). We want to put these bees in the hands of people who have managed bees before and understand the biology.”

The benefits of the bee project could extend beyond individual growers in the county, Cane said.

“If we can get a few of these native species on the landscape, we would be successful in feeding a big part of the native bee community,” Cane said. “It would benefit the entire landscape of the Four Corners.”

For more information, contact Hammon at 970-244-1838.

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