Beekeepers in Montana
Two kinds of bees are used in agricultural production in Montana: honeybees and alfalfa leafcutting bees (ALCB). Honey bees in Montana are either kept by hobbyists and small-scale honey producers or by commercial migratory beekeepers who make their living pollinating crops from California to the Pacific Northwest. For them, Montana is primarily a place for their bees to rest and recover from the stresses of pollinating intensively managed crops like almonds and stone fruits. Alfalfa leafcutting bees are used in the production of alfalfa seed. They are solitary rather than social insects, but their gregarious nature makes it possible to manage them for alfalfa seed production. Yield increases of two to three times are common when enough ALCBs are present.
There are approximately 200 registered beekeepers in Montana. About 85-90 of them are commercial, with about 50 involved in migratory pollination as their primary business. The remainder are honey producers, landowners, and hobbyists.
There are approximately 35 individuals registered to possess ALCBs in Montana, all of whom are alfalfa seed producers. The ALCB bee program has also provided analytical services to producers in Nevada, Oregon, and the Dakotas.
The Apiary tab below contains information on bee locations, health certificates, and fee requirements. The Alfalfa Leafcutting Bee tab provides background and program information for ALCBs.
Apiaries (Honey Bees)
Montana typically ranks in the top five states in the U.S. for honey production. The department registers all non-hobbyist apiary sites in the state. Registration for hobbyists is voluntary. Non-hobbyist apiaries must be registered by April 1 of each year.
Two excellent online resources for beekeepers are the USDA Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory and BeeInformed.org.
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There are four types of apiary registrations:
- General (Commercial): An apiary placed by permission on someone's property. All general apiaries must be 3 miles from the next general site of another registered beekeeper. This is to prevent the spread of diseases and pests from apiary to apiary and to limit the over-exploitation of pollen and nectar resources by foraging honeybees.
- Pollination: An apiary established for the pollination of commercial seed, fruit, or other commercial crop dependent on bee pollination. Pollination sites and not subject to the 3 mile buffer-zone requirement, but are limited in size and are established only for the period in which pollination provides a benefit to the specific crop. Bees must not be in place until the crop is blooming, and must be removed afterwards.
- Landowner: An apiary that is registered to the owner of the land the apiary site is established on. There is no buffer-zone requirement or limit on the total number of hives that can be registered.
- Hobbyist: An apiary placed by permission on someone's property and limited to not more than 5 hives per individual or 10 per household. There is no minimum distance required between hobbyist apiaries. Hobbyist registrations are voluntary, however, beekeepers who choose to register must pay all program fees.
Alfalfa Leafcutting Bees
Alfalfa leafcutting bees, Megachile rotundata, are the most intensively managed solitary bee species in the world. However, "solitary" doesn’t mean that they live entirely alone. Alfalfa leafcutting bees will tolerate being in quite close quarters with each other, but each female tends her own nest. There is no division of labor or caste system, no queens or workers, as there are in their truly social relative, the honeybees.
Alfalfa leafcutting bees are used in the production of alfalfa seed. They are a much more efficient pollinator of alfalfa and a few related crops than are honeybees. Fields with managed populations of ALCBs usually produce two or three times the number of seed that fields without managed bees present do. Growers place ALCBs in the fields as pre-pupae: mature larvae in the small leaf-wrapped cells that you see in the photographs.
It takes about 20,000 bees per acre to get a good yield, but bees are expensive and too many bees can actually decrease yields by competing with each other and collecting too much pollen. To farm effectively and efficiently, growers must put out the right number of bees. And to do that, they must know how many live bees are present in each gallon or pound of ALCB cells.
That’s where we come in. A number of ALCB pre-pupae cells are counted out on cardboard trays and x-rayed. You can see on the x-ray that most of the cells are healthy mature larvae. They are plump and full of water, making them a bright white on the x-ray. Not all larvae are healthy, however.
Some are a less-dense gray color; these are larvae that have died and begun to dry out. You may see some with bright dots; these are bee larvae that have died of chalkbrood, a deadly fungus that forms very dense reproductive spores –the bright dots– when it matures. Some will have numerous smaller larvae inside instead of one large bee larva These are various predators and parasites, other insects that feed either on the ALCB larvae themselves, or on the pollen and nectar stored for their use. Some lay a few eggs in the cell, and smaller species may lay hundreds. By inspecting each cell on the x-ray film and adding all this up, our entomologist can determine the number of viable cells, those that will successfully mature into adult ALCBs. Using that information, growers can put out exactly the number of bees they need for each field.
ALCB Program & Services
The Alfalfa Seed Committee manages this program, which is administratively attached to the Department of Agriculture. Alfalfa leafcutting bees are reared in Montana primarily for pollinating alfalfa raised for seed. Because of these very efficient pollinators, alfalfa seed growers can double to triple the amount of seed produced per acre.
Bee diseases and parasites, however, can dramatically decrease ALCB reproduction. Registration and certification of ALCBs is a means of providing information to beekeepers so they can make management decisions regarding pests.
Registration and Laboratory Fees are:
- One time registration fee - $15.00
- Basic laboratory analysis - $50.00 per sample
- Sex ratio test - $20.00 per sample
- Certification - $30.00/sample (must be an official sample), per diem, mileage, and a $10.00/hour sampling fee