Leafcutter Bees Specialty Workers For Alfalfa Seed Crop

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“It’s a specialized endeavour that takes a lot of infrastructure and is different from standard farming methods.”

Leafcutter bees are part of the workforce at Nature’s Way Farm, located near Grimshaw in Peace River country. Peter Lundgard, who farms with his wife Mary and four children, has been raising leafcutter bees for many years on his certified organic farm, which specializes in beef, sheep and alfalfa seed.

“We have a grass-based farm and rotate everything with making hay, pasture and alfalfa seed. With the production of the alfalfa seed comes the rearing of the leafcutter bees for pollination,” says Lundgard.

Lundgard and his family practice holistic management, which requires practitioners to look at the farm as a whole and maintain a diversity of species and crops. Lundgard, who has been raising leafcutters since the 1980s, also sells surplus bees to other producers.

Alfalfa is a cross-pollinating plant which needs help to pollinate, says Lundgard. The bees gather pollen from one plant and then go to another plant to carry out the pollination process. The alfalfa flower has a floret containing a stamen which comes out when the leafcutter bee steps into the flower. The grains of pollen are then picked off the bee’s body and the stamen seals up, allowing cross-pollination. This typically takes place in July, when it is hot and sunny.

Leafcutter bees are about a third of the size of a honeybee and do not produce any honey. They are able to sting but are generally non-aggressive and are not particularly protective of their nest. It takes about 20,000 bees to pollinate an acre of alfalfa.

The bees begun their life cycle in a loose cell made from a leaf cutting. Lundgard and his family put the cells in an incubator a month before his alfalfa crop blooms. The bees hatch in the incubator and then are released into shelters containing nesting material which are kept in the blooming alfalfa fields. The nesting area is a piece of polystyrene or wood filled with tunnels and holes a quarter-inch wide. The live bees collect leaf cuttings by cutting the leaves off the alfalfa and placing them in the tunnels to make a nest for future offspring.

Once the nest is built, the bees provide the nest with pollen scraped from their bodies. They then lay their eggs into the nests and pad the cells with more leaves. Once the crop has been pollinated, usually by the end of August, the bees die.

The pollinated alfalfa seed is then harvested. Lundgard processes the seed locally and then markets it to the alfalfa sprout industry and to farmers and ranchers for alfalfa hay and pasture.”We’ve specialized in a yellow blossom alfalfa for our pasture and hay,” he says.

Leafcutter bees used to be more common in the Peace Country, but are not used as frequently now. Lundgard, who does place his bees in other farmer’s fields on occasion, speculates this may be because of a preference for other crops and farming methods.

“Raising leafcutter bees is a specialty field,” he says. “It’s a specialized endeavour that takes a lot of infrastructure and is different from standard farming methods. You need the nesting material, housing and incubators and it’s quite labour intensive.”

Since the leafcutter bees are a different species than the honeybee, the industry hasn’t had to battle problems such as nosema or varroa mites. “We’re just grateful that we’re not seeing these in the leafcutter bees,” says Lundgard.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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