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March 12, 2009 4:17 am

New leaf-cutter bee testing machine in the works

Written by Tribune Staff

State, alfalfa growers share cost of new X-Ray equipment

New digital X-ray equipment will be on line in time to test leaf-cutter bees this fall, thanks to state funding and a match from the Wyoming Alfalfa Seed Growers Association.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal last week signed the budget bill, which included an appropriation of $90,666 for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to buy the X-ray machine at an estimated cost of $135,000. The Alfalfa Seed Growers will cover the rest of the cost, estimated at $45,000.

Most Wyoming alfalfa seed is grown in the Big Horn Basin, although some is produced in Fremont County. The X-ray equipment is used to test for disease in samples of leaf-cutter bees, which pollinate alfalfa plants. When tested, the bees are in pupae form and encased in small cells made of pieces of leaves.

Kim Decker, a Department of Agriculture inspector who tests leaf-cutter bees in the state's lab at the University of Wyoming Research and Extension Center campus just north of Powell on Road 9, said the new equipment will be a big improvement on the current machine.

“The one we have we got in 1984,” Decker said. “We no longer have service for it, and the parts are obsolete.”

She uses the X-ray equipment to test samples of leaf-cutter bees from each of 60 alfalfa seed growers annually from December through April. Wyoming's leaf-cutter bee law requires bee populations to have less than 10 percent infection with chalk brood, a bee disease, and the X-rays help determine how many bees have the disease. Wyoming is the only state with such a law.

Decker said bees that may have chalk brood look shiny on X-rays. She manually double-checks to determine whether the bees actually have chalk brood.

Above the 10-percent threshold, a grower must either sell his bees to another state or destroy them, she said.

Leaf-cutter bees that have been certified disease-free through the testing process can bring higher prices when sold to growers in other states.

Once the state funds come through, and the bid process is complete, Decker said it could take 12 to 16 weeks for the new equipment to be delivered. It should be on line for testing to begin again in December.

John Grover said the Wyoming Alfalfa Seed Growers will pay at least $45,000 to match the state money, or whatever amount it takes to buy it when the bid process is complete. He said the new machine will cost an estimated $135,000. The state will pay $90,666.

“We'll pick up everything above that,” said Grover, president of the Wyoming Alfalfa Seed Growers' Association.

Grover said the money has been collected from alfalfa seed growers over the years through leaf-cutter bee testing and is in a fund in Cheyenne. He stressed that the money in the matching fund is entirely from grower contributions.

The new X-ray equipment is “a good deal all the way around,” Grover said. Its digital images “are a night-and-day difference” from the current ones and the new machine will operate without chemicals, better for Department of Agriculture employees running the machine and better for the environment.

Grover said alfalfa seed growers typically apply at least three gallons of leaf-cutter bees per acre, which costs around $225 per acre. The alfalfa seed production industry relies on the bees for pollination.

“Nothing works like them,” Grover said of the bees. “They fly until they wear their wings out.”

Rep. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, co-sponsored a bill supporting the $90,666 appropriation. The bill cleared the House of Representatives and received do-pass recommendations from the Senate Agriculture and Budget committees.

“It went all the way through everywhere,” Bonner said, thanks in part to bill co-sponsors Ray Peterson and Debbie Hammond.

At the same time, a budget amendment placing the funding in the budget for the Department of Agriculture was approved. Bonner pointed out that when the budget was finalized with the appropriation in it, the funding bill was no longer necessary.

Bonner said the willingness of the alfalfa growers to foot part of the bill was a huge part of its success.

“That was certainly compelling,” he said, “that growers were coming as participants in the cost sharing… the fact that growers came with money in hand as they asked.”