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Every spring, just as the swallows return to Capistrano, so do the bees buzz back to Bakersfield. But don't expect to look up in the sky and see a swarm of them making their way west. These bees travel by truck.

And though the place they're visiting is certainly beautiful, trees arranged in graceful allées and topped with billowing white and pale pink clouds of blossoms, this trip is all business.

The almond industry, which has emerged over the last decade as one of the biggest and most profitable in California agriculture, depends on bees for pollination. And so every spring, fully 60% of the commercially kept honeybees in the United States -- more than 1 million hives -- are trucked to California's Central Valley to do their thing.

But what happens when one of the state's fastest-growing businesses depends on workers who are disappearing almost as quickly? That's what California's almond farmers are waiting to find out.

California produces almost 80% of the world's almonds, grossing more than $2 billion in 2007. The state's almond exports are more than twice the value of its wine exports.

While almonds have been growing into an agricultural powerhouse, bee populations have been dwindling. Most recently, plagued by a mysterious condition called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, honeybee colonies across the country have been vanishing, abandoning perfectly good hives. Even after two years, no one yet knows why. Theories are many, but definite answers are few.

And though the source of the disease is a mystery, its potential effects are not -- at least when it comes to almonds. Because it's this simple: Without bees, there are no nuts.

Pretty as they are, if ever there was a plant that seemed designed to resist all efforts at domestication, it is the almond tree. Not only must the flowers be cross-pollinated with another almond variety, but because of the way the flowers are constructed, they rely on bees to do the pollinating. Other crops can be fertilized by birds, other bugs or even wind, but almonds need bees.

Plus, almonds flower for only about three weeks and always early in the spring, when the bees are at their lowest energy, just emerging from their winter rest.

So although most attention is focused on the fall harvest, almond farmer Matt Billings, 36, says it's this short period of time in the spring that makes or breaks his year. "If we don't have bees or if it rains or blows or anything else, we've got nothing else to do for the rest of the summer," he says. "The whole crop is determined in this three-week window."

More almond trees

EARLY one mid-February morning in Billings' orchards, with the valley fog still cool and clinging, the beehives look like board boxes that have been discarded on the dirt shoulders between the road and the trees. A second-generation almond farmer from Bakersfield, Billings and his father D ("no period, just D") farm about 1,000 acres of almond trees scattered along 30 miles of Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Earlimart.

There are few sights in farming more beautiful than an orchard in spring, and that's especially true for almonds. "It kind of looks like a street in Paris, doesn't it?" asks Billings, and it kind of does.

Up and down the valley, from south of Bakersfield to north of Modesto, there are similar orchards, covering more than a half-million acres total.

Because almonds have been almost uniformly profitable for more than a decade, the acreage devoted to the crop has increased by almost a third since 1997 and is projected to increase by more than 20% over the next five years.

If that happens, it's estimated that pollination will require the services of a whopping 70% of all the commercially kept bees in the U.S.

And that's when what has been mainly an expensive inconvenience could turn into something more. Because while almond trees are being planted, honeybees are vanishing.

The cause of CCD determinedly resists solution. The condition is as fickle as fate. One beekeeper might lose almost all of his hives while his neighbor, who follows exactly the same practices, escapes unscathed.

"Whatever this is, it's not playing any favorites," says Eric Mussen of UC Davis, one of the leading apiculture experts in the United States. "Pretty much everywhere it's been, it's clobbered some people and not affected quite a few others."

To a certain extent, these die-offs have happened periodically since at least as early as the 1890s and included spells during the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, when losses were severe and ended just as mysteriously as they began.

In fact, the extent of last year's outbreak is unclear. Media reports were widespread, but a national survey of beekeepers found that only 23% reported CCD-like symptoms in their hives. Estimates for this year are similar.

"That means a quarter of the beekeepers had the problem and three-quarters of them lucked out," Mussen says. "But while those lucky ones are certainly happy, they don't know why that happened or what will happen this year."

Various culprits have been suggested: mites, viruses, poor nutrition, genetically modified plants, travel stress, pesticides, drought, and, of course, global warming. In all probability, Mussen says it's likely to be some combination of several of those factors rather than any one single cause.

So far, the main effect of the shortage of bees has been skyrocketing prices for their services. The price has gotten so high that a flurry of honeybee rustling has occurred in the valley. Only five or six years ago, farmers could rent hives for $30 or $40 each. That's still the price for most crops, but today for almonds, the increased competition means pollination costs $140 to $150 per hive and sometimes more.

Because it takes an average of two hives to pollinate an acre of trees, that can add up pretty quickly. Renting bees for 1,000 acres of almonds could run as much as $300,000 or more.

D Billings says when he started farming almonds in the early 1970s, beekeepers would volunteer to park their hives in the orchards during bloom. Now, he says, he spends as much on pollination as he does on water -- astonishing in the parched southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

To facilitate pollination, almond orchards are usually planted with alternating rows of different varieties. The money nut is the Nonpareil variety, which is the pretty one that is most often sold for eating out of hand. The rest of the orchard will be divided between varieties that bloom early in the cycle and those that bloom late. These will go to breakfast cereal, baking, and candy and ice cream making.

And even though this year's bloom was delayed by chill, once it got started the weather was for the most part warm and dry. But at this time of year it could just as easily have turned wet, cold or windy -- conditions that will keep the bees hidden in their hives.

Indeed, even the cool of the morning keeps them close to home. In Billings' orchard, at first the hives look deserted. But as the air warms, the bees become more active. By the time the sun is high, the buzzing from their hives is audible a dozen yards away and you can see them boiling out of the gaps in the top -- off to work.

In search of a good buzz

IT'S this very industriousness that makes honeybees so valuable as pollinators. Turn a hive of bumblebees -- honeybees' big, black-faced cousins -- loose in an orchard and they'll amble one by one among the trees, pollinating with a lazy nonchalance. A hive of honeybees, though, will cover the trees in a swarm.

Farmers find their bees in a variety of ways. Dig around on the website of the California Almond Board and you'll find a Craigslist-like directory of hundreds of beekeepers advertising their services. Other farmers use brokers, who coordinate the hives of smaller beekeepers.

Most of these beekeepers are mom-and-pop operations. Mussen says a typical beekeeper needs to run about 1,000 hives to be profitable. A few bigger outfits manage 12,000 to 15,000 hives.

For almost 25 years, the Billings have rented their bees from Dennis Arp, a beekeeper in Flagstaff, Ariz.

"Every February they give us a couple of cases of honey and we give them a couple of boxes of almonds, that's how we start every year," Matt Billings says.

Arp keeps around 1,000 colonies himself and uses his connections with other keepers to fill the Billings' demand. Some beekeepers have started flying hives in from Australia to meet their commitments.

"The price just keeps creeping up," Arp says. "Sometimes I feel kind of sorry for the Billingses. I think what's happened is the numbers of acres of almonds kept increasing, but everyone still kept adding more almonds. The acreage kept increasing, but the population of bees didn't."

High-mileage bees

EVERY spring, about a week before the almond trees start to flower, Arp loads a bunch of his hives on the backs of a couple of semis and drives them to Delano. He unloads them in the cool evening, catches a few hours sleep, then drives back to repeat the trip with the remaining bees.

When the bees are done working the almond trees, they'll be trucked to the Phoenix area, where Arp will put them in citrus groves to make orange blossom honey (honey from the nectar of almond flowers is too thin and bitter to be useful). From there they'll move on to high desert orange groves and finally wind up on desert wildflowers.

Other beekeepers prefer to keep their charges pollinating. Some will stay in the Central Valley, working the peach, nectarine and plum orchards and then moving on to squash and melons. Others will travel as far north as Washington state to pollinate apples, cherries and pears. Or they'll go back east to work orchards and cranberry bogs there.

And Arp has been affected by CCD. He says he lost 500 colonies last year and an additional 250 to 300 this year. He says he has spent $40,000 buying new colonies to replace those he lost -- a major expenditure for a small operation.

"That was a little discouraging," says Arp, who seems every bit as laid-back as his charges are industrious. "The colony kind of goes from looking pretty good in the fall, to the population just disappearing.

"From a beekeeper's point of view, everything looks real good, there's a good laying queen and lots of honey stored. And then two or three weeks later you go back and something has happened. Instead of the colony expanding and moving forward, it's going backward, and really fast.

"I'm not really sure what's going on with it," he says. "I don't think [Colony Collapse Disorder] will be the end of beekeeping, but it's having an impact. I'm trying not to hit the panic button."

That's about the same attitude the Billings have, running a million-dollar business that depends on the whims of a six-legged insect. "What will we do" if Colony Collapse Disorder problems continue? asks Matt. "Mostly worry. We've pretty much perfected that."

For the immediate future, anyway, it's just another in a long list of inconveniences. Once again this spring it looks like the honeybees have done their job.

russ.parsons@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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