US 12 work may put bees at crossroads

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— For decades, Mike Buckley has farmed his family place with hard work and the help of millions of native pollinators: alkali bees.

But the bees — and the livelihoods of the farmers who depend on them — are in the path of a proposed widening of U.S. Highway 12, scheduled by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The project includes expansion to a four-lane divided highway, and relocating a stretch of the road to the north — right through the flight path of the growers’ bees.

The road is a killer, with accidents since 1991 resulting in more than 400 injuries, according to WSDOT, and claiming 30 lives. No one disputes that improvements, still in the design phase, are needed. The question is how to build the project and do the least harm.

The department already is providing corridors along Interstate 90 to aid the migration of elk, bears, cougars and other animals. Now, it’s working to design a road around the needs of a bug.

Enter Doug Walsh, professor of integrated pest management at Washington State University. He and graduate students Natalie Boyle and Amber Vinchesi are in the third year of a four-year, $232,000 study paid for by the department to scope out a solution.

Jason Smith, environmental manager for WSDOT’s South Central Region, said the department is looking at a range of strategies, from berms and trees to direct bee flight paths above traffic; to excavating the roadbed in some sections below the level of the bees’ flight. Relocation of bee beds might be explored, or paying growers compensation if all else fails.

Low fliers

For the scientists, the first step is to figure out just how far, in what direction, and how high the bees fly.

Which is why, if you happened to have been driving a remote country road near Buckley’s farm at the height of the pollination season, you would have seen one of the researchers piloting what they call the Vehicular Bee Sweeper: a white SUV tricked out with a custom array of 14 bee nets stacked more than 13 feet high — the height of your average tractor trailer.

So far, the results are concerning.

It turns out the bees fly right in the death zone of a car’s or truck’s grill, from just one to three feet off the surface of the road.

And the B Team, as they call themselves, erected 14-foot-high plastic screen-mesh barriers, to determine if the bees, when blocked in their route, could be taught to fly over the road. They found the bees would climb to the top of the barrier — then drop right back down to ground level, where the wind provides the least resistance to their flight.

Relocating the beds also is dicey, growers say. “It doesn’t always take,” Buckley said, “and it’s years before you know, and if it doesn’t work you have to start over. I have seen many transplants. I can’t count how many failed. But I can count on one hand how many were successful.”

What about switching crops? The department once suggested that — much to the farmers’ disgust. Grower Mark Wagoner said alfalfa is one of the few crops that can be grown in their area, because of limited irrigation water.

Alfalfa can mine the deep soils of this agricultural district, with its up to 100 feet of topsoil left behind by ice-age floods.

And when the plants’ deep root systems run out of moisture, the water stress brings on the bloom — worked by the alkali bees. It’s a perfect combination, as long as the bees continue to flourish.

Millions strong

Smaller than a honeybee, with metallic blue, green or orange stripes around their abdomens, they are the only successfully managed, native, aggregating, ground-nesting solitary bee species used for pollination in commercial agriculture in the world. And with 17 million tiny fliers, the Touchet Valley is the largest aggregation anywhere.

Growers manage about 120 acres of bee beds they carefully irrigate with pipes buried in the ground, to provide the moist soils the bees need.

They salt the surface of the beds each spring, to draw the moisture up through ground, and discourage vegetation so roots won’t invade bees’ nests.

The bees are well worth all the trouble: They can increase alfalfa-seed yields as much as 70 percent with their superior pollination performance.

They are the secret to success for Buckley and 15 other alfalfa-seed growers in an 84-square-mile area in the Touchet-Lowden agricultural district of Walla Walla County.

They farm about 12,000 acres of alfalfa seed, making Walla Walla County the second-largest alfalfa-seed producing area in the U.S., with retail sales exceeding $50 million in 2009.

As for switching pollinators — you can forget it, growers say. The alternative to alkali bees is importing nonnative leaf-cutter bees from Canada, Wagoner said, but that’s expensive, driving up farmers’ production costs.

This land, this crop and these bees are prefect for each other, growers say, and they want a solution that preserves their bees and their industry, not a buyout.

“I don’t want to get paid, how can you put a number on those bees? I just want them to come up with a solution,” Buckley said.

“I love these girls.”

Lynda V. Mapes can be reached at lmapes@seattletimes.com, 206-464-2736 or on Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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