Monday, February 10, 2014

Alfalfa Pollination

What is the most important insect-pollinated crop? Not a fruit or a vegetable but alfalfa. Yes, alfalfa, not because we consume large amounts of their sprouts, but because cattle needs this food. Thus: no alfalfa, no beef or milk.

This crop was first introduced in California during the gold rush. Alfalfa farming grew from there at a steady pace to what it is today, the third largest crop, after corn and soy bean. A few species of bumble bees and solitary bees took a look at this exotic flower, found it to their liking and proceeded to pollinate it. It wasn't a big leap; this plant's blossoms resemble those of other members of the pea or bean family. The native pollinators were familiar with bean flowers and adapted easily to the new arrival.

Alfalfa blossom. H. © Zel. Wikicommons
Peas, beans, alfalfa, clover and several other plants have butterfly-like (papilionaceous) flowers. The lower petals form an enclosure, shaped like the keel of a boat. This structure holds the sexual parts, the anthers and pistil. When an insect lands on the flower, a trigger mechanism makes it snap open or trip the flower. This is how pollination is accomplished.

Honey bees were not present in California when the earliest fields of alfalfa were cultivated. The first beehive arrived in 1853, just one solitary hive; a few others had died in transit. It took many years for the honey bee populations to build up to significant levels. This didn't matter because the wild bees did an excellent job.

New Zealand wasn't so lucky when it started growing alfalfa to feed the recently introduced cattle. The few native pollinators were stumped by the new flower. They lacked the necessary equipment and dismissed the strange blossoms. Year after year, hay grew luxuriantly, but no seeds. Alfalfa growers resorted to importing a few species of bumble bees from Europe to cut down the expenses of having to buy seed every year. Thus, industrious bumble bees saved the day in that country.

Scotch broom, a papilionaceous flower, being tripped. © Beatriz Moisset
 Honey bees detest the rough treatment alfalfa flowers subject them to and soon learn a trick of their own. They enter the flower from the side and help themselves to nectar without tripping its mechanism. Only naïve, youthful ones pollinate flowers. Despite the honey bees' poor performance, most alfalfa farmers resort to them because of the convenience in using a managed species.

In addition to the honey bee, two other species of alfalfa pollinators are managed to some extent and used commercially. They are the Japanese alfalfa leafcutter bee and the native alkali bee.

The populations of native bees have been severely reduced in the last one hundred years largely because of intensive agriculture. Restoring their numbers and putting them to work in alfalfa fields would be an arduous task but a worthy one. Some farmers find that, when they include flowering and nesting site places in their fields or orchards, the health of the crop improves and the need for pesticides diminishes. Thus, alfalfa pollination could be done entirely and more efficiently by native bees. This form of agriculture would be more sustainable than the present methods.

List of articles
Bring Back the Native Pollinators
Will We all Die if Honey Bees Disappear?
Growing Insects: Farmers Can Help to Bring Back Pollinators
Organic Farming for Bees

© Beatriz Moisset. 2014

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