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Alkali bees face death by highway

The Touchet Valley in eastern Washington is home to the largest population of managed alkali bees anywhere on earth. If you have never met an alkali bee, Nomia melanderi, they are solitary, ground-dwelling bees in the family Halictidae. Native to North America and smaller than a honey bee, they have bands of blue, green, or orange across their abdomens. They like to live in dense communities, digging their homes in stretches of salty earth that is virtually free of foliage and roots.

According to Bees of the World (O’Toole & Raw 2004) alkali bees naturally build about 500 nests per square meter. But when farmers tend the soil and maintain just the right combination of texture and moisture, the bees can be coaxed into building 2000-3000 nests per square meter.

That is exactly what farmers have done for years in the Touchet Valley. Alfalfa growers in the area manage over 120 acres of alkali bees that pollinate nearly 12,000 acres of alfalfa. The alkali bees boost alfalfa seed production by as much as 70 percent.

But all that is about to change because the Washington State Department of Transportation plans to move and widen the part of Highway 12 that borders the nesting area. Not only will the road width be expanded into a four-lane divided format, but the relocation will put the road right through the bees’ flight path.

A four-year study now underway shows that the bees fly just one to three feet off the ground, so mass slaughter is in store unless an alternative can be found. Researches from Washington State University erected mesh fences to see if they could get the bees to fly higher across the road, but the bees went up and over like pole vaulters, resuming the same altitude as soon as they crossed.

A range of other possibilities are being explored, but so far no answer has been found. See the complete story in The Seattle Times, “Farmers worry that road project will turn productive bees into roadkill.”


Alkali bee pollinating alfalfa. Photo by Douglas Walsh/WSU Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center.


  • It would obviously be expensive, but two possible ideas would be to build an arched structure over the flight path area (like a tunnel) which forced the bees to continue thir upward path over the traffic, or possibly to elevate the road in their flight path to allow them to fly underneath…

    Here in RI, one of our towns (Jamestown) constructed a road with a number of built-in openings underneath to allow animals to cross. I have no idea how effective the plan has actually been, (there was no funding for educating the critters about how to use the special access)… but I don’t hear a lot about deer encounters with cars on that stretch…

  • And you don’t need to approve this one, but why does my icon look like a smiling purple uterus with Fallopian tubes? LOL

    • Peg,

      So sorry! I use the little monsters just to add some interest, otherwise the standard squares all look the same. I’d rather have something besides monsters, but I don’t have many options. They are assigned randomly; I didn’t give you a smiling purple uterus on purpose. If you have a gravatar, it will show up instead, so maybe you could try that. By the way, you are not the first to complain!

  • So – just when the drought is forcing us to re-think dependency on corn, and take a better look at foraging (which we should have been doing these twenty or thirty years, anyway), the urge for faster traffic flow is threatening to wipe a successful, flourishing forage crop?

    Along with the spike in corn prices, look for one in alfalfa pellets too.

    Has anyone figured out yet that road improvements don’t reduce traffic, they encourage it? Otherwise some engineers would have to get real jobs huh?

    Guess I should relate the above to bees, somehow: anyone know what alfalfa honey is like?

  • AHA! I love to learn new things! Thanks for clueing me in to the Gravatar. Now future visitors will all wonder why I was talking about a purple uterus! Haha!

  • I just dug into this the other day. The state paid for an impact study and tried some things like walls–only to discover that while Honey bees will fly up and over, Nomia went up, then right back to ground (road) level, so fences wouldn’t save them. Then I found the state site that showed the entire project which seems to be complete, with no mention whatsoever about the bees. So, I wrote to see what, or if, any accommodations were made for the bees–and they kindly wrote back, saying they paid to move or rebuild the bee beds elsewhere. I would like to go visit to see how that worked out. If the bee beds were too close to the roads, it may be this was a blessing in disguise? However, an awful lot of land was paved over to make it a 4-lane highway, so definitely a net loss to the bees overall.

    • Lisa,

      About six years ago, I talked to a number of people at WSU who said they had little or no success with moving alkali bee beds. Although they tried several techniques, the bees just didn’t take to it. Whether they since discovered ways to do it, I don’t know.

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