California almond growers are once again being stung by a shortage of honeybees.
A doubling of almond prices since 2001 has spurred farmers to plant new orchards, and "demand is reaching the limit of the bee community to keep up," said Gene Brandi, a Los Banos beekeeper -- or apiarist -- and former chairman of the National Honey Board.
A year ago, bees were in short supply because wildfires had destroyed thousands of hives. The Varroa mite, a parasite that devastates bee colonies, was also to blame.
The mite is causing problems again this year. But this winter's spate of cold, wet weather is also receiving some of the blame for an expected drop in California's almond output and a resulting increase in prices that could show up on grocery store shelves.
The bee shortage comes at a crucial time for California's 6,000 almond growers.
The industry predicts that the acreage of bearing almond trees will grow by nearly 40% to more than 750,000 acres over the next five years. At that rate, California almond growers will require 1.5 million of the nation's 2.4 million commercial beehives to pollinate their orchards during the mid-February to early-March bloom each year, Brandi said.
California almond growers already employ about half of all working honeybees in the U.S., Brandi estimates. This makes them the single largest users of bees in American agriculture.
The vital role played by bees in commercial agriculture is straight out of a high school biology textbook.
In such crops as almonds, apples, cherries and cucumbers, among others, bees travel from blossom to blossom in search of food. In the process, they spread pollen containing the male sex cells of the plant or tree species, which enables the plant to bear fruit.
Nature typically can't provide enough bees to accommodate the needs of modern, large-scale farms and orchards, so growers rent hives from commercial beekeepers, fueling what has become a $100-million-a-year business in the U.S.
Bees are finicky about their working conditions. If it's windy, cold or rainy, they stay in their hives instead of making pollinating rounds. The almond bloom -- the period when the trees are receptive to pollination -- lasts just days or weeks, and farmers need as many bees as possible working in their orchards during that time.
This year, cold and wet weather during the almond bloom kept bees in their hives for days. Farmers estimate that the California crop will be off by 15% to 20% as a result, pushing the state's annual almond production below 1 billion pounds for the first time since 2001, said Doug Youngdahl, chief executive of Sacramento-based Blue Diamond Growers, the world's largest tree nut processing and marketing company.
As demand for bees soars, so have prices for hive rentals.
Steve Van Duyn, who farms 600 acres near Ripon, spent about $150,000 on bee rentals this year, more than double the $68,000 he paid in the 2004 season.
Growers are renting hives from as far away as Australia to ensure they have enough bees to work their orchards, Youngdahl said.
"This has become a major concern," said Carl Navarra, who farms 650 acres of almond trees in Tracy.
Almonds are the only major farm crop in California that is being seriously affected by the bee shortage, although Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturist at UC Davis, said Golden State beekeepers imported so many hives from North Carolina -- often at premium prices -- that farmers there were worried they would not have enough bees for their crops this year.
High prices are already prompting beekeepers to expand. Brandi intends to add "several hundred" colonies to his stock of 2,000 hives, each of which can house tens of thousands of bees.
But Navarra said it was unclear whether beekeepers would be able to catch up with the industry's needs "as long as almond prices stay high and growers keep planting like they have."
And the mite problem will have to be solved before the bee industry can see significant growth, Mussen said.
To be sure, California's rainy winter is expected to produce an abundance of flowers, which means lots of pollen, which means lots of bees. That should allow beekeepers to increase their colonies through the summer months, he said.
The problem comes in fall and winter, when the mite tends to attack the bee population used to pollinate almond trees. It wasn't uncommon last winter for beekeepers to lose 40% or more of their insects, Mussen said.
Two new anti-mite treatments are coming on line, but it will take at least a winter or two to gauge their effectiveness.
In the meantime, Navarra and other farmers are hoping the bee shortage won't slow what has become a juggernaut in California's farm belt. California produces 80% of the world's supply of almonds and nearly 100% of the domestic supply.