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.”