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Pollinator. Mason. Jeweler. A female blue orchard bee is a multitasking master. She fashions exquisite nests out of mud and pollen that resemble pieces of jewelry. And in the process, she helps us grow nuts and fruits.
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A new type of bee is buzzing through California's orchards. And researchers are hoping that the iridescent, greenish insect may help provide a more efficient way to pollinate nuts and fruits in an era when traditional honeybees have struggled.
Unlike honeybees, blue orchard bees don’t sting humans. And instead of building large colonies with thousands of worker bees caring for eggs laid by a queen bee, female blue orchard bees work alone to build their nests and stock them with food. They’re solitary bees, like most of the 4,000 species of bees in North America.
Blue orchard bees, which are native to the United States, are of increasing interest to scientists, government agencies and farmers for their ability to pollinate almonds, sweet cherries and other tree fruits more efficiently than honeybees.
“This is, I think, the moment for these bees to shine,” said entomologist Natalie Boyle, who studies blue orchard bees at the United States Department of Agriculture in Logan, Utah.
Boyle works with almond growers in California, whose crop is worth $5.2 billion a year and who rely heavily on honeybees to pollinate their orchards every February. Research has found that 400 female blue orchard bees are as effective at pollinating almonds as the more than 10,000 bees in a honeybee hive, said Boyle.
Between 40 and 50 percent of honeybee colonies die each year around the country, according to the yearly National Honey Bee Survey, carried out by universities with the sponsorship of the USDA and the California Almond Board, among others.
Finding other bees that could work side by side with honeybees could offer what Boyle calls “pollination insurance.”
--- What is a mason bee?
The blue orchard bee is a mason bee. Females build their nests out of mud that they collect with two huge pincer-like tools on their face called mandibles. In nature, they build their nests in places like hollow twigs. But they will also build them in pencil-wide drill holes in a wood block.
--- What makes blue orchard bees good pollinators?
One thing that makes blue orchard bees good pollinators are hairs on their abdomen called scopa, on which they collect and spread pollen. Blue orchard bees are particularly good at pollinating almonds and tree fruits like cherries and apples because they love foraging in their flowers. And they’re particularly well-suited to pollinate almonds, which are in bloom in February, when it’s chilly in California’s Central Valley, because they will fly around and forage at a cooler temperature than honeybees.
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