Business

Saturday, Feb 08 2014 08:00 PM

ABUZZ IN KERN: Growers look to native species to help honeybees pollinate

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Paramount Farming Co. bee biologist Gordon Wardell is raising blue orchard bees in a temperature-controlled environment in his lab west of Lost Hills. Wardell is experimenting with the blue orchard bee to see if it could supplement the honeybees in pollinating almond orchards.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Tubes of blue orchard bee nests are processed in biologist Gordon Wardell's lab. Here a worker culls viable cocoons.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A box of blue orchard bee cocoons are seen in Gordon Wardell's lab where he is growing them in a controlled environment. Wardell, a biologist for Paramount Farming Co., is experimenting with the blue orchard bee to see if it could supplement the honeybees in pollinating almond orchards.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Paramount Farming Co. bee biologist Gordon Wardell shows tubes that will be placed in orchards where a blue orchard bee can lay its eggs. The tubes are then collected, and in a controlled environment, the eggs mature to a full-grown bee in a cocoon. Normally the blue orchard bee would lay its eggs in holes in trees.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Paramount Farming Co. bee biologist Gordon Wardell looks at an X-ray of a blue orchard bee's nest that he is growing at his lab. He is experimenting to see if the blue orchard bee could be used to supplement honeybees in pollinating almond orchards.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A blue orchard bee that had been dormant in a cocoon comes to life as it senses warmth.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A nest of the blue orchard bee is unwrapped to reveal a cocoon of a blue orchard bee. The blue orchard bee has proved to be an excellent and aggressive pollinator that works well with honeybees pollinating almond orchards.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

For more than 200 years, European honeybees have been the preferred means of pollinating North American crops.

But they're not the only bees capable of the task.

With the nation's honeybee populations declining precipitously for several reasons, some almond growers are investigating another species known as blue orchard bees, or orchard mason bees (osmia lignaria ).

This iridescent black insect, a native bee that neither produces honey nor lives in hives nor stings (normally), holds particular promise partly because it can become active when almond trees bloom.

Just as importantly, blue orchard bees work well around honeybees -- and even complement them. They tend to pollinate the blossoms honeybees miss, and do so at a speed their honey-producing co-workers could never hope to match.

There are drawbacks, however.

It takes years of hard, slow work to raise enough of them to pollinate crops on a commercial scale. What's more, because they're not social bees, a large portion of them -- maybe half -- fly away when released, never to return.

The good news is, blue orchards are industrious. Working without the help of other species, 1,000 of them can pollinate an acre of almond trees, a job that generally requires at least 12 times as many honeybees.

Gordon Wardell, a bee biologist with Paramount Farming Co., is undaunted. He employs a crew of workers who patiently sift through the black orchard bees' nests, setting aside viable cocoons for cold storage until conditions are right for them to start pollinating.

Wardell has worked with blue orchard bees for five years. He expects it could take five years before he develops his stocks to the point where a decision can be made about incorporating them into Paramount's almond pollination of 8,000 honeybee colonies.

He emphasized Paramount is not trying to put beekeepers out of business, only establish a backup plan in case of a honeybee shortage.

"We want to be certain that we have reserves if we need them," he said.

-- Staff writer John Cox

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