PULLMAN, Wash.—Six Walla Walla High School students have been busily traversing the state this spring, carrying their message to local communities to set the seeds for growth—much like the alkali bees that are the subject of their presentation and a Washington State University study.
The students are part of a team participating in the national FFA (Future Farmers of America) organization’s Agricultural Issues Forum, with the state contest taking place at WSU on May 10. They will preview their presentation, “To Bee or not to Bee: The Pros and Cons of Relocating U.S. Highway 12 through the Alkali Bee Beds in Walla Walla County,” at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 24, in the WSU Food Science and Human Nutrition Building, Room 354.
The students’ presentation is also tied to research being conducted by WSU entomologist Douglas Walsh and WSU graduate student Amber Vinchesi. The researchers are in year three of a four-year, $232,000 study to survey alkali bee flight paths and population density in nesting beds located in the Touchet-Lowden agricultural district in Walla Walla County. The paths and population would potentially be affected by the upcoming Highway 12 construction project.
Read more about the study online at http://bit.ly/14JAILG.
“I think it is great that the students chose a topic so near and dear to their community,” Vinchesi said. “This topic and these bees are crucial for alfalfa seed production in the area. Through the students’ presentations, I am hoping audience members gain an understanding of the significance of the alkali bee and its beauty as a native pollinator.”
Clash between safety, growers and bees
The Washington State Department of Transportation proposes rebuilding Highway 12 near Touchet, Wash., as part of a plan to widen the highway from the junction of the Snake River and SR 124 to Walla Walla. According to the department website, more than 10 million tons of cargo are transported over this section each year, and slow-moving trucks and recreational vehicles congest the two-lane highway.
The bottleneck is also dangerous. Since 1991, the corridor has seen roughly 1,080 collisions, causing 414 injuries and 30 deaths.
But the proposed new highway would cut through the second largest alfalfa seed-producing area in the United States. The 84-square-mile area supports 16 growers producing 12,000 acres of proprietary alfalfa seed varieties for six different seed companies, according to one of those growers, Mike Buckley.
The same area also has nearly 17 million alkali bees, the largest community of non-honeybee pollinators in the world, as one study indicated. Slightly smaller than the honeybee, with black and green-yellow bands on its thorax, the alkali bee is considered the most effective alfalfa pollinator. Some local alfalfa growers have relied on the bees for more than 50 years to pollinate their crops.
WSDOT sponsored the study with Walsh and Vinchesi to look for ways to minimize the project’s impact on the native bees, after a finding in a 2009 environmental assessment determined that alkali bee populations within one mile of the new roadway might be adversely affected.
“Typically environmental remediation efforts by transportation departments are designed to preserve and protect furry, feathered or scaly vertebrates,” Walsh said. “The fact that WSDOT has been willing to support Amber Vinchesi’s doctoral project to preserve an insect population is admirable.”
High school students as ambassadors in the dialogue
Enter Arch McHie and six Walla Walla High School students. McHie, an agricultural education teacher and FFA adviser, invited Buckley’s son, Bryce, to speak to one of his classes about the topic a year ago. The former FFA member and chapter officer asked McHie’s class to consider creating an Agricultural Issues Forum team and presenting on the alkali bees and highway relocation.
McHie assembled the team last fall: seniors Anna Pettyjohn and Melissa Magnaghi; juniors Tyler Morgan and Summer Carlton-Gantz; sophomore Lexi Swenson; and freshman Natalie Hartford.
The students interviewed local alfalfa seed producers and county government officials and researched other sources. Not all students were in McHie’s class, so the group spent much of its time meeting before school, after school and several weekend evenings to accommodate school, sports and work schedules.
The hard work and extra hours paid off last January, when the Walla Walla FFA team placed first in the regional forum competition. Since the win, the students have taken their information to community Lions and Rotary clubs and other public forums to prepare for the state competition, in which they will face 25 teams.
“The purpose of the forum is for a group of students to research a local issue facing agriculture, put together a creative presentation and then get out into the community and create discussion,” McHie said. “We have been all over town giving presentations.
“In late March, we were in Spokane to present to the State Farm Service Agency,” he said. “In April, we presented to the WSDOT and the Walla Walla County Commissioners. All of the major players in our issue have seen the presentation.
“Can what we do ultimately make a difference?” he asked. “I’m not sure, but the insight these students are receiving into the politics and emotion of the issue has been worth every minute.”
For one student, participation in the FFA competition will bring her back to Pullman when she graduates.
“Joining the ag issues team has helped me realize that I want to pursue a career in agriculture next year at WSU,” said Pettyjohn. “I love how involved our community presentations are and how strongly people feel about our issue. It’s a local issue with state and national implications.”