Known scientifically as Nomia melanderi, the alkali bee is a champion pollinator when it comes to alfalfa flowers--even outperforming the respected honey bee.
Alkali bees from 1 acre of nesting bed "well populated" can readily pollinate 100 or more acres of alfalfa, for a crop of about 100,000 pounds of clean seed, says Cane, with the ARS Pollinating Insect-Biology, Management, Systematics Research Unit in Logan, Utah.
Cane says female alkali bees are particular about where they'll nest, preferring, for example, moist basin-type soils with salty surfaces.
However, because alkali bees nest in the ground, they couldn't be moved easily and so weren't supplied commercially in the way that honeybees were.
When alkali bees find a suitable stretch of barren land, each female excavates a shaft ending in a cluster of nursery chambers about the size of small table grapes.
But there are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 species of native bees in the continental United States--including bumblebees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, alkali bees
and mason bees such as the blue orchard bee--that also play an important role.