Bees are creating a buzz. Honeybees, bumblebees, blue orchard bees—all are important for pollination. Folks at North Dakota State University want to help bees thrive. They’re paying special attention to the alfalfa leafcutter bee. The little bug has a big mission: multiplying alfalfa seeds.
God created bees to spread pollen from flower to flower. This pollen-spreading helps plants make seeds. Bee behaviors are complex. Of course, God knows what makes bees tick. But bee scientists must carefully study their breeding, overwintering (survival during cold months), and dancing (yes, really!) to figure the buzzers out.
The leafcutter bee is common in Canada. It is especially good at pollinating alfalfa. Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the United States and a favorite food for dairy cows, sheep, and horses. When leafcutters are nearby, alfalfa seed production triples. For this reason, farmers love leafcutters.
Leafcutter bees got their name from their leaf-snipping ways. They cut circular holes in leaves—especially rose leaves. The holes aren’t harmful, but gardeners sometimes think someone has been hole-punching their plants!
Leafcutters don’t live in hives. They create nests in tiny, deep holes. Sometimes the holes are in dead wood, sometimes in old walls—anywhere there’s space for them to wiggle in. The bees transport leaf circles—usually larger than their own bodies—to their nests. They use saliva to paste the leaf segments together into long, straw-like cells. Their larvae live in these leaf-lined chambers and eat their way out.
Every year, U.S. farmers buy leafcutter larvae from Canadian bee brokers. But once across the border, the immigrant bees struggle. Most of their offspring die in the United States. Scientists like North Dakota State’s Elisabeth Wilson want to know why. She’s part of a team of researchers analyzing the causes of so many baby bees’ deaths in the United States. To study the bees, NDSU researchers made a “bee hotel.” The structure has holes facing four different directions. Wilson studies temperature and activity inside the 3-D-printed nest.
Researchers are learning more about leafcutters. For example, Wilson says most farmers place bee boxes facing southeast so that sunlight “wakes the pollinators up and gets them out into the field earlier.” But NDSU studies show many bees prefer the northeast and northwest sides of the bee hotel.
Alfalfa farmer Mark Wagoner doesn’t expect a solution soon. He says, “We’ve been trying to figure this out since the ’70s.” Meanwhile, studying the insect’s puzzling ways is keeping researchers busy as . . . bees.