Leaf Cutter bees vs. Honey Bees

leaf cutter bee boxes

Someone asked me if the big open rectangular boxes all around a field were my bees or not. With that description I told them no, those are leaf cutter bees around an alfalfa field.

“Well, isn’t alfalfa one of your main sources of honey?” he asked.

So, I started explaining. Yes, alfalfa is one of our main sources of honey, because alfalfa blooms three times before it goes to seed. Therefore, three times as much nectar. But, alfalfa has a tripping mechanism. When the bee tries to get the nectar “the flower releases its pollen with an explosive spring that delivers a good whack to the honey bee.”

Honey bees may be slow learners, but after a whack or two to the head and they quit going to that flower. Then two things suffer, the alfalfa doesn’t get pollinated and the bees don’t collect as much honey. The pollination problem is why those big open rectangular boxes are in the field. Those are houses for leaf cutter bees. They are smaller than the honey bee and can pollinate the alfalfa without setting off that tripping mechanism. Because of that, any field being turned into alfalfa seed will have those boxes around or in the field to ensure that the seed gets pollinated.

“Don’t you still get upset that you aren’t getting enough honey when farmers turn their alfalfa into hay a little earlier than you would like? Why is that if the bees cannot or better yet, will not get the honey?”

To quote the above mentioned website again:  “To avoid the direct hit, honey bees learn how to “steal” the nectar from the side of the flower. While this works for the bee, it fails to pollinate the flower.” Innovative little bees:  Still getting what they want, without getting hit on the head!

Farmers and alfalfa yields

But on the farmer side of things, I cannot blame them for cutting when they do. Most farmers cut their alfalfa at 10% bloom because that has the highest protein content with the highest yield. For example, a 10% bloom will have 20% protein and 20 tons per acre. But if you cut at 50% bloom you only get 10% protein even though you get 30 tons per acre. (I am making up numbers here to make my point). Basically, the longer the farmer waits to cut their alfalfa, the higher the yields, but the material will be much lower quality.

The 10% bloom is the most yield before hurting the protein content which means more money in the bank. But it does hurt beekeepers. 90% more volume without doing anything different is anyone’s dream come true! Can we compromise? Say you let it go to 20% bloom and we will get 10% more honey? No? Well it was worth a shot.

One thing is for certain, alfalfa makes for wonderful honey. Give ours a try, you won’t be disappointed!

 

leaf cutter bees didn't get this honey