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A business of their own

In the mid-1980s when Joan and Les Balla’s three children were in their teens, the couple felt it was important for them to be involved in a business of their own. The Ballas, who live near Leask, Saskatchewan, ran a hog operation at the time. They looked at various options and decided that raising alfalfa leafcutter bees would provide many learning opportunities, as well as some income for the children.

“Because my father had been in the leafcutter bee business and found it to be quite profitable, we thought this was worth pursuing,” says Joan. Her father gave the boys, Sheldon and Dale, each 10 gallons of leafcutter bee cells to get them started. Robin would join in the business a few years later.

The boys each rented some land on which they would raise the bees. They and Les built over 100 huts that would be used on about 500 acres (one hut to about five acres). They also built over 2,000 hives to house the nesting blocks. “A great deal of manual labour is involved in raising alfalfa leafcutters,” said Les. He also constructed a large building to store the hives during the winter.

“The alfalfa leafcutter was introduced in Canada in the early 1960s to save the alfalfa seed industry. Before that, native bees did the pollination, but their numbers were reduced as modern agriculture practices expanded.

“The leafcutter bees are much more effective pollinators than honeybees. The alfalfa leafcutter is the only species of the leafcutter that has been domesticated, and they are gentle and will only sting when handled. Their sting is much less painful than that of a honeybee or wasp,” Joan said.

They are about the size of a housefly; greyish in colour with light-yellow bands on their abdomens and faces. In the wild, they will nest in soft, rotted wood or in thick-stemmed plants. Domesticatedleafcutterswill readily use man-made nests that can be moved indoors to protect the overwintering larvae.

In early June the Ballas move the cocoons to incubation trays inaheat-controlledroom, where they are incubated at about 25 C for 26 days. Once the bees hatch, they are taken to the huts located in an alfalfa field and released.

The bees mate almost immediately and begin looking for nectar and pollen. The females also begin to collect plant leaves which they cut with their mouth parts, then return to their nests in the huts and use the leaves to line them. The Ballas use Styrofoam bee boards that have long tunnel spaces in which the bees make their egg cells.

“The bees need hot, sunny weather to work at their peak. There’s about a six-week time frame from the beginning of July until mid-August when days are longest and production is the highest. A cool, rainy summer will dramatically affect production — the bees just don’t go out when it’s wet and cool. After mid-August the days get shorter and production goes down,” said Joan.

Once the nests are filled and the alfalfa has finished flowering, the hives are removed from the fields and stored indoors at about 20 C to allow the bee larvae to spin their cocoons.

Proper handling of the bee cells is important, says Les. He and Dale built a machine that carefully strips the cells from the Styrofoam boards with minimal damage to the cells. The cells are then tumbled in a machine to remove excess debris and reduce problems with mould and parasites.

After harvesting and tumbling, cells are placed in boxes for cold storage (about 5 C) until spring. The Ballas sell their excess cells through a broker, with most going to the western U.S. where they are used to pollinate fruit crops and almond trees.

“The highest we went was about 500 acres of alfalfa. That yielded about 1,000 gallons of cells at two gallons an acre. We had over 2,000 hives out at one time and prices were good then — you could get about $85 per gallon. The prices have now dropped to about $12,” said Les.

“The children were in it for several years before they moved away from home. Les and I have continued with the bees, but not to a large extent. It’s now more of a hobby that brings in some additional farm income,” says Joan. †

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