LEAFCUTTER BEES ARE THE UNSPOKEN POLLINATOR ALL-STARS OF OUR AGRICULTURAL INDUSTRY!
Honey bees often receive a celebrity status but leafcutter bees are some of the hardest working bees on our farms. Due to their tiny size and hairy bodies, they can easily pollinate the smallest flowers and help us grow many crops that are the backbone of our food system.
Since the 1960s, leafcutter bees have been the primary pollinators of alfalfa, which is one of the major ingredients in the feed we give our dairy cows and pigs. Honey bees refuse to adequately pollinate alfalfa flowers due to their “spring loaded” pistils, but leafcutter bees are content to fly from flower to flower in the bright purple alfalfa fields. Farmers can thank leafcutter bees for increasing their yields by 7 or 8 times.
This structure is called a leafcutter bee hut. Inside the hut are leafcutter bee boards, where the female leafcutter bees will lay their eggs inside of the holes, much like how mason bees lay their eggs. You’ll notice the “Bees No Spray” sign! Farmers must agree to not spray chemicals as leafcutter bees are extremely susceptible to harsh pesticides and herbicides.
Jim Watts, owner of Rent Mason Bees, and his family have been working with leafcutter bees since 1965. Their business began over 50 years ago in rural eastern Oregon as a side job for his father Roger Watts who was working as a school teacher. Roger started putting up bee boards on the sides of barns and selling them full of leafcutter bees to alfalfa farmers. After putting his name around local feed stores, he began making $5 a board and when demand started to grow for these small efficient pollinators, his earnings soon surpassed what he was making as a teacher.
Fast forward to 2021 and the leafcutter bee rental operation now services farmers all over the country! Leafcutter bees now pollinate a large number of crops and contribute to supplying grocery stores all over the United States.
Leafcutter bees can help you grow more food in your backyard too! Growing tomatoes this summer? Beans? Squash? Host these tiny, gentle pollinators for the summer and they will happily pollinate your flowering veggies.