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After Disorder Threatens Honey Bees, Wild Bees Get More Pollinating Jobs


OK. Now let's look at the business of bees. Much of the food on the Thanksgiving table depends on bees for pollination, like the apples in your apple pie, for example. Well, turns out, professional beekeepers have had a rough go recently because of something called colony collapse disorder. Some farmers have been using wild bees as Molly Samuel from member station WABE reports.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Joe Dickey picks apples in his orchard in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Georgia on the Tennessee border.

JOE DICKEY: Right now I'm just kind of lightening the load of these small trees so they won't break.

SAMUEL: He bought the property more than 50 years ago, when he was 17, with money he saved from shining shoes.

DICKEY: We've got a couple of thousand trees now. We've got 16 varieties of apples - planted every tree with a shovel.

SAMUEL: One thing Dickey doesn't need to do is rent honeybees.

DICKEY: I didn't know I didn't need to because everybody else was using them.

SAMUEL: The reason he didn't is because wild bees already swarm his orchard. Honeybees aren't native to North America. But there are more than 4,000 species of wild bees that are.

NICK STEWART: The first time I came here during bloom was eye-opening for me.

SAMUEL: Nick Stewart studies bees at Georgia Gwinnett College.

STEWART: It looked almost like the entire orchard was kind of on fire a little bit. It was smoking a little bit, like a faint black mist. Get up in there and you actually realize it's not smoke. It's just thousands and thousands and thousands of bees. And they're all native.

SAMUEL: He's working with his colleague Mark Schlueter to study how more farms can use those wild bees.

MARK SCHLUETER: What we have right here is this wildflower patch.

SAMUEL: Everything is in bloom and vibrating with bees. Schlueter says this is where the science is happening. The idea is to attract wild bees with these flowers when the apple trees aren't blooming, so that when the trees do Bloom, the insects will already be here, ready to get to work.

SCHLUETER: You can see that they're - just in a small area, you've already seen over a dozen species.

SAMUEL: Bumblebees, carpenter bees, a bright emerald green one with black and yellow stripes that's a kind of sweat bee. There are similar research projects in other parts of the country, including at big farms out in California. But relying on wild bees isn't necessarily simple. Different kinds live in different regions and pollinate different things. So it's not a one-size-fits-all science. Diana Cox-Foster is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

DIANA COX-FOSTER: It's not like you can just plug in a wild bee and expect them to be healthy.

SAMUEL: Still, relying on the wild bees is working for apple farmer Joe Dickey. This is his first year he hasn't used honeybees.

DICKEY: It's as good a crop as I've ever had. And I think maybe that's due to not as much frost, plus the pollination, you know. But I'm real pleased with my crop this year.

SAMUEL: The scientists say this research isn't about replacing honeybees. It's about helping the insects out, having a backup plan and supporting the wildlife that's been here all along. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in McCaysville, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Samuel

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