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CALIFORNIA'S LOSS OF ALFALFA CROPS MAY BE IDAHO GROWERS' GAIN

Drought, stiffer pesticide regulations and the threat of Africanized honeybees are hurting California's alfalfa seed growers.

But that's good news for Idaho's alfalfa seed industry. Ron Bitner, technical adviser to the Idaho Alfalfa Seed Commission, said acreage is up 25 percent to 35 percent this year, from about 25,000 to roughly 35,000 acres."We're seeing a lot of acres coming out of California into the Northwest," Bitner said.

Africanized honeybees only recently crossed the U.S. border into Mexico, but Bitner said it's only a matter of time before they get to California. In fact, he said, one researcher estimates the "honeybees with an attitude" eventually could infest large areas of the country.

Even before the Africanized bees arrive, the cost of pollinating alfalfa seed already is increasing in California. Bitner said the cost of mite inspections alone has doubled to nearly $90 an acre in the past two years. And Africanized bees crossbreeding with local honeybees will mean even costlier inspections and the expense of removing compromised queens.

Africanized bees and their offspring are "harder to handle" and sting more often, although not more dangerously, than regular honeybees.

"The biggest concerns will be in litigation - when honeybees are around cities or population centers, where they might cause increased stinging," Bitner said.

Honeybees are the primary pollinators for U.S. crops. But the Northwest alfalfa seed crop is pollinated by more docile leafcutter bees, which do not crossbreed with honeybees.

"Why honeybees work down there as opposed to up here, scientifically nobody has ever come up with the answer," Bitner said. But they might just consider pollinating Idaho seed alfalfa a slap in the face.

When a honeybee brushes against Idaho seed alfalfa, a tripping mechanism on the plant snaps and dusts the insects with pollen.

"The honeybees don't like that," Bitner said. "It's almost a thud; it hits them in the face."

As a result, honeybees have learned to take the nectar from Idaho seed alfalfa without gathering pollen.

"We're lucky to get 50 to 100 pounds of alfalfa seed cross-pollinated by honeybees," Bitner said. "With leafcutters, we get yields of 1,000 to 1,500."

The tripping mechanism doesn't seem to bother leafcutters, which gather pollen for their eggs rather than nectar for honey.

"They don't mind it," Bitner said. "People call them stupid."