The setting is a community meeting. Officials from the Department of Transportation and farmers share different views on a proposed highway expansion. A newscaster offers an introduction and commentary, and a moderator guides the discussion.
The contentious topic? Alkali bees.
The above scenario, acted out by six Walla Walla High School students, is a dramatization. But the topic it touched and the research discussed in the 15 minutes skit is real, with the potential for big consequences for local growers, residents and the millions of bees at home in a stretch of Highway 12 west of Walla Walla.
The proposed highway expansion from two to four lanes between 9 Mile Hill to Woodward Canyon Road is expected to reduce collisions and fatalities while streamlining the connection between Walla Walla and the interstate highway system running through the Tri-Cities.
However, doing so could seriously harm the bee population, which have a wider span of highway to cross to get from one field to another and more risk of becoming smatterings on car grills and windshields. Farmers who rely on alkali bees to pollinate crops would be affected.
Washington State University entomologists have conducted research the Wa-Hi students used on the potential impact a wider highway would have on the ground-hugging bees.
With about 25 presentations under their belts since January, the members of the Wa-Hi Ag Issues team were in Pullman on Friday for the 83rd Washington State Future Farmers of America Convention at WSU. The Walla Walla Chapter was one of about 20 competing in the Ag Issues competition.
Representing Wa-Hi was freshman Natalie Hartford; sophomore Lexi Swenson; juniors Summer Carlton-Gantz and Tyler Morgan; and seniors Anna Pettyjohn and Melissa Magnaghi. Their presentation took third place.
They titled 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.” It explores the pros and cons of expanding the highway through an area where alkali bees have been pollinating high-grade alfalfa seed crops for generations.
The topic came together early in the school year and soon after FFA advisor and Wa-Hi teacher Arch McHie got the team together. McHie helped the team come up with the format of the community meeting. The girls then had to spend weeks pulling together research from media reports, the Department of Transportation, farmers and from other sources.
“The purpose is to have a group of students research a topic, create a presentation and then get out into the community to create discussion,” McHie said in an e-mail. “We have certainly accomplished that so far.”
The students began presenting their memorized skit in January, including to the very groups they portray. The presentation guidelines include an introduction, a pro, a con and an ending -- but without choosing a side.
“You have to be neutral, so the audience can decide for themselves,” Morgan said.
“It has sparked a lot of discussion about the alkali bee issues related to the new highway construction,” McHie noted. He said the team was soon approached by the state Department of Transportation and WSU entomologists to see the presentation.
“People generally give us really good comments,” Swensen said before Friday’s presentation in Pullman. “Most of them are just. ’Wow.’ Most of them don’t even know that it’s an issue.”
Morgan and Hartford play the DOT representatives who are making a case for expanding Highway 12 and moving it north from its current route.
“We’re saying this is a huge safety issue,” Morgan said. “There’s just no way that the bees cannot be affected at this point. Any other alternative that we’ve thought on and tried won’t work to the best advantage.”
Carlton-Gantz and Pettyjohn play the farmers who are frustrated and angered by the proposal.
“It’s not so much just the bees and the pollination,” Carlton-Gantz said. “It’s these specific bees, and these specific crops. They work together.”