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Honeybee shortage could harm world's almond supply (Photos)

A nationwide shortage of honeybees could begin harming the global supply of almonds, which are largely grown in California, bee experts say.

A dieoff of the buzzing pollinators from coast to coast, if it continues, could put a strain on almond orchards across the Golden State, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almond crop.

Beekeepers who have suffered plunging bee populations are reporting huge financial losses. Those that had colonies die, are dealing with remaining bees that are very weak. 

“Every beekeeper in the United States is trying to increase their colonies to meet that demand and get that big payday, but most of them are barely able to keep their current numbers,” said Joe Traynor, a Bakersfield bee broker who organizes deals between beekeepers and almond farmers. “They are just treading water.”

 Traynor said beekeepers are lucky to survive with 30 to 50 percent losses. He said this year was the worst he’s seen in the decades to bring bees to good colony strength for almond pollination.           

Gordon Wardell, a bee biologist for California’s largest almond grower, Paramount Farming Co., said some of the beekeepers it works with this year suffered losses.

“Some of the beekeepers that have worked for us had pretty dramatic crashes as well, some have lost 30, 50 percent, some as much as 60 percent of their bees,” Wardell said. 

Wardell said the plunge in honeybee production is being caused by a variety of factors, from the drought in the Midwest, parasitic mites that feed on bee blood, and an unusually cold snap earlier this winter in California.

Every year, 75 percent of the national supply of honeybees is trucked in from places like New York, the Dakotas and Florida to pollinate the 780,000 acres of almond groves in California—an area roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Bee experts say about 1.6 million hives are needed to pollinate the crop, but this year, they estimate the bees fell short.

Without bees, there would be no almonds. And the bees are falling behind, even as almond demand is soaring worldwide, from China to India. The desire for the tree nut has boomed as California farmers marketed almonds as a healthy snack.

Almonds are now California’s largest agricultural export, valued at nearly $4 billion in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It looks like we’ve promoted almonds to the point where we need to start promoting bees,” said Mike Mason, a member of the board of directors for the Almond Board of California, a trade group.

Other farming trends are making the future tough for bees. Many farmers have been preferring to grow corn in recent years, inspired by the demand for corn-based ethanol for fuel. But corn doesn’t provide flowers for bees to feed on, cutting out an important food source for bees between seasons. 

The dilemma of the beekeepers caused dozens of them to meet on a recent Friday night at a beekeeper’s home in Shafter in the San Joaquin Valley. The home was surrounded by a grove of flowering almond trees.

As the beekeepers met for a dinner of pasta and chicken, there were no easy answers.

David Bradshaw, a second-generation beekeeper from Visalia, drove more than an hour to this meeting to commiserate. He says he lost half a million dollars recently when he saw his bee population plunge by 40 percent.

“Everyone is just full of questions,” Bradshaw said.

Not all almond farms are in trouble. As California’s largest almond grower, Paramount Farming Company’s Lost Hills orchard in Kern County was able to find enough bees. During a tour of its farm, as many as 20,000 to 30,000 bees live in each of the white hive boxes, each containing frames that hold bees and their eggs, pupa and larva.

They buzz toward the bright white blossoms that dot rows upon rows of almond trees.

Some farmers hold out hope that this year’s crop will manage to eke out a decent almond supply. But all bets are off for future seasons if the bee shortage worsens.

Wardell, the bee biologist, said if the almond industry is to thrive, it needs to find ways to keep the bee population alive.

“It’s our responsibility as stewards of the bees to figure out about what’s going on and bring them back into balance,” Wardell said.