Monday, August 23, 2010

Across the West

A drive across the American West gave me quite a view of breath-taking scenery. It also revealed much about the state of our agriculture, wildlife, honey bees, native pollinators, and the success of concerted conservation efforts by many. Travelling to Washington State University, Wes and I passed through eight western states: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. My observations revealed an agriculture dominated by large-scale farms and ranches employing mono-cultural plantings of crops and largely supporting the production of beef. Considerable acreage is devoted to pasture grasses, corn, and wheat. Each of these is a grass, a plant propagated by wind and not requiring insect pollinators. Alfalfa, a legume, is a high-quality, high-protein crop grown for livestock food. Alfalfa is often grown in the arid West in irrigated fields. In several locations I observed that pallets of migratory bee hives had been brought in to pollinate the alfalfa. Having sufficient numbers of insect pollinators is especially important where the alfalfa is being grown to produce seed.

Wildlife seems to be thriving in the agricultural areas, forests, national parks, and even in the urban areas. I observed a number of mammals along the way: prairie dogs, ground squirrels, white tailed deer, mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bison, and moose. A number of birds were observed: magpies, ravens, and shandhill cranes. Birds of prey I observed included red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, golden eagles, and osprey. Beekeepers always watch for bee hives as they travel. I spotted several bee yards along the way. Stationary bee yards were located on small farms with diverse crops and in residential areas. Migratory honey bee hives were located near fields of alfalfa. Wildlife thrives in the natural areas designated as national parks, and conservationists are connecting these to build corridors as migratory routes for animals such as elk, pronghorn antelope, and bison. Bumblebees, like this one pollinating flowers on the Frank Phillips ranch in Oklahoma, have hairy abdomens unlike carpenter bees.

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