When Henry Braul and his brother John decided to take a risk and invest in leafcutter bees to pollinate their alfalfa seed fields near Rosemary, Alta., “we were the only ones,” he says. “Everyone was watching us and smiling behind our backs.”
Braul bought his first batch of larvae in three two-gallon pails for $700 from his neighbour, Bob Asher.
It was the late 1960s. At the time, only Asher and another neighbour, Eric Dick, had made the investment in leafcutters. “The bees came originally from Parma, Idaho. Bob was a honeybee keeper and got interested in these leafcutters, and then we got interested and bought some bees from him. We started very small. We didn’t know much and learned as we went along,” says Braul.
The Brauls got a lot of help from researchers at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, especially Gordon Hobbs, who had developed a way to domesticate a wild leafcutter bee for the pollination of alfalfa crops in 1964.
Alfalfa seed was an attractive cash crop, “and in those years they were always looking for alternatives,” says Rich Braul, Henry’s son, who now runs the family’s 320-acre operation. “You can’t get alfalfa seed without pollination, so that’s why we use these bees. They’re a lot more efficient than honeybees in alfalfa. A leafcutter bee pollinates almost every flower it visits.”
“You never do anything without investing something,” adds Henry. “We weren’t really expecting too much the first years — it was an experiment. A couple of times we almost quit, but we kept on going, and now the industry is very big.”
Leafcutter bees are ideally suited to Western Canada, according to Rich, and the industry has grown with the advent of their use in hybrid canola seed production.
The Brauls use the leafcutter species Megachile rotundata, a European bee used around the world due to its efficiency as a pollinator.
But they’re also a pleasure to work with. “They’re very good pollinators, and they’re easily domesticated,” he says. “Bumblebees are good pollinators, but they’ll fight each other.”
Also, leafcutters won’t sting unless provoked. “And all they do is reproduce while pollinating your crop,” says Rich. “They can double or triple their numbers in a season.
“Their life cycle is just one year. You hatch the larvae in spring and release them in shelters in the field where the nesting material has been placed. They line the tunnel with leaf pieces, provide the cell with nectar and pollen, and lay an egg. The egg develops into a larva, which spins a cocoon around itself, and overwinters in this form. The bees only live six to eight weeks in the summer, then they’re finished,” he says. “So then you take the nesting material in with all the larvae, extract the larvae from it, keep as many as you need for next year, and sell the excess.”
The Brauls’ business is threefold: alfalfa seed, leafcutter bee larvae — and manufacturing custom machinery they’ve developed over the years to automate the extraction process.
The nesting material is made of wood boards grooved on both sides and stacked to create long, thin tunnels roughly the size of pencils, or Styrofoam blocks with the tunnels moulded into them, Rich says. Leafcutters then use these tunnels to create half-inch-long cells in which they seal their eggs.
In the fall, the Brauls bring the blocks in, dry them and then use a custom-built “guillotine-type” machine to push the cocoons out of the grooves.
“Once the cocoons have been pushed out, they are stuck together in long ‘pencils,’ which need to be broken up into individual cells, so we built a machine to do this,” says Rich. “More recently we also started building conveyors to bring the cocoons from the extraction machine up to the cell breaker screening machine for processing loose cells.”
Each year, the Brauls process about 1,300 of these blocks between December and March. The dormant larvae, still encased in cocoons, are sold to leafcutter bee brokers who in turn sell them in the U.S. and to Canadian seed canola producers.
The Brauls take pride in their operation and value being able to do the work themselves; they’ve been able to stay small by excelling in a niche market.
“It’s been a good crop for us, and the whole area benefits from this crop,” says Rich. “In Rosemary, we share a lot of information between farmers. We’re still learning. There are so many variables with alfalfa and leafcutter bees and there is a lot of information to share. I think this has really helped the industry do well here.”