LOGAN Rosalind James steps into a Styrofoam shelter surrounded by thousands of wild bees. Dozens buzz past the entomologist as she examines blocks that contain 3,540 holes for solitary bees. "Bee condos," she says.
The smattering of stings she's sustained is a small sacrifice for work that may save a $75 billion-a-year slice of the U.S. economy.
James leads a U.S. Department of Agriculture team in Logan, Utah, that is fighting fallout from colony collapse disorder. The malady has killed at least 2 billion honeybees that pollinate crops from almonds to zucchini. As entomologists try to solve the mystery, scientists at Logan are teaching anti-social, wild bees to imitate commercially maintained honeybees and pollinate crops.
"If honeybees disappeared tomorrow we'd be in a world of hurt," says Jim Cane, a research colleague of James in Logan. Further colony collapse "would bankrupt a lot of farmers and make a big hole in some state budgets" from revenue lost on California almonds and oranges, Florida citrus and North Carolina apples.
Colony collapse disorder remains an entomological enigma a year after it was first described by U.S. beekeepers. The syndrome, in which bees abandon their hives and die, has been found in at least 35 states, a Canadian province and parts of Europe, Asia and South America. The collapse hurt a quarter of U.S. beekeepers, wiping out 45 percent of their bees on average.
Honeybees are the main type of bees raised for large-scale pollination because they are easy to transport and fertilize most crops that need pollen. Crops that are almost entirely dependent on honeybees include almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries, carrots and pumpkins, according to Cornell University.
Bees pollinate by carrying pollen grains from the male part of a plant to a female portion of the same or different plant.
The pursuit of alternative pollinators among the 4,000 U.S. wild bee species drives Cane into a field at dawn, where he peers at a squash bee asleep in a flower. The bee turns a bit, curling tightly inside the flower.
The bee is too cold to fly away, Cane says. He proceeds with his headcount of wild squash bees who pollinate the flowers without any aid from beekeepers.
The squash bee is a Logan success. Cane and other researchers worldwide have found that one squash bee for every 10 flowers can handle the crop without honeybees. That knowledge will let farmers deploy honeybees elsewhere, he says.
Cane is also studying Osmia Aglaia, a wild bee that pollinates raspberries and blackberries. He plans to start distributing the bees to beekeepers in the next year to begin their commercial development.
Building wild bee supplies may take at least five years because it will require several generations of managed bee breeding to generate supplies needed for widespread commercial use, James says.
Researchers are learning the way bees respond to different scents to make the insects return to hives after they are released to pollinate. Most wild bees don't live in beehives, and they tend to fly off on their own once released, wrecking a beekeeper's investment, says Theresa Pitts-Singer, who focuses on scent for the Logan researchers.
The entomologist examines a Y-shaped glass tube inside the Logan laboratory with a bee at the bottom. At the top are two pieces of paper, one doused in the smell researchers believe a mother bee uses to mark its brood's nest, the other unscented. Once researchers find a scent that seems to attract a bee, they can test it in fields. Ultimately, successful scents would be distributed to beekeepers to lure insects home.
Pitts-Singer is experimenting with other odors, including essence of mud, cocoon, and leaf. When solitary bees learn to live together, "we can make them much more effective," she says.
The wild species with the most potential may be the Blue Orchard bee. The bee can fly in cooler weather than honeybees, making it better for early-season almond pollination. Honeybees hired for almonds sometimes fly off to nearby citrus farms, says James. Blue Orchards stay on task.
The Agriculture Department has developed sufficient shelter-living Blue Orchard bees to begin commercial almond pollination. In 10 years, they may be able to pollinate half the crop, says James.