Almond trees are exploding with pink and white blossoms across California's vast Central Valley, signaling crunch time for California's most valuable farm export and a giant party for America's bees — many of them from Nebraska and Iowa.
Toiling like migrant workers among the blooms are honeybees trucked in from near and far.
Their role as pollinators is crucial and growing with the expansion of almond groves. Without them, the trees' flowers won't become nuts. It's work no machine can replicate. On the bees' shoulders rests the fate of California's nearly $3-billion-a-year almond industry.
So each February, hundreds of beekeepers from around the country converge on the almond farms with their hives in tow. Lasting about four weeks, it's the largest such pollination effort on Earth: 1.6 million hives buzzing with 48 billion bees across an area about the size of Rhode Island. Practically a bee Woodstock.
"Without the honeybees . the (almond) industry doesn't exist," said Neal Williams, an entomologist and pollination ecologist at the University of California-Davis. "We need those bees. We need them to be reliable, and we need them at the right time."
But these are hard times for bees, beset by parasites, diseases and declining habitat — a plight epitomized by a mysterious malady called colony collapse disorder, which has wreaked havoc on the U.S. bee population in recent years. That in turn has stoked fears among almond producers and other farmers that depend on the insects.
Between 2003 and 2009, the number of bee colonies in California plunged 26 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Consequently, prices to rent bees have tripled, to as much as $160 a hive, because of tight supplies and rising expenses for beekeepers to keep their colonies healthy. Collectively, California growers will spend about $250 million to rent bees this year.
Scientists suspect colony collapse disorder is caused by a combination of ailments that includes mites, malnutrition, stress and fungi.
Even in relatively normal years, those factors separately can claim a third of a hive's population, said California beekeeper Bryan Ashurst, who said the creatures are surprisingly delicate.
"It takes time to build a hive," Ashurst said. "But it can collapse really quickly."
Nowhere does the pollination party play out on a grander scale than at Paramount Farming Co., about 145 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It's the world's biggest almond grower, with 47,000 acres under cultivation.
"Almonds are our primary crop and the most critical, because they bloom for a short period," said Paramount President Joe Macilvaine. ".Lots of things can reduce almond yield — weather conditions, drought, insect infestations. But if you don't have the bees, you never get to begin."
This season, Paramount contracted with 26 beekeepers to bring in 92,000 hives from as far as Maine and Florida. The rental expense represents 15 percent of the company's total almond production cost.
Maintaining a supply of top-quality bees is so challenging that Paramount employs its own staff entomologist, Gordon Wardell, who works with beekeepers and research scientists.
On a recent, nearly windless day, Wardell donned a bee suit to inspect a hive in the middle of a Paramount orchard, with almond flower petals covering the ground like confetti. Hundreds of honeybees buzzed around him as he removed the top of a standard hive box and pulled out one of eight wooden frames where the worker bees make honey, store pollen and feed their larvae.
The symbiotic relationship between honeybees and humans goes back at least 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. Spanish missionaries brought the first honeybees to California in 1750, Wardell said.
Today bees need more care and feeding because their environment is more polluted and threatened by urbanization.
As a result, some adult field bees die after just two or three weeks instead of their normal six. They're replaced by younger bees who are forced to leave the hive to gather nectar and pollen before reaching optimal strength.
"It's like sending (human) 6-year-olds to work at heavy construction," Wardell said.
To help their bees stay strong, beekeepers feed them extra proteins and sugars, a diet that helps them survive the winter and have the energy to work long hours spreading pollen. Beekeepers also have become adept at rejuvenating hives by splitting the populations and replacing ailing queens.
The hard work is paying off. After hitting a low in 2007 of about 340,000 hives, according to the USDA, the number of managed bee colonies in California is rising.
"We're looking at the best bees we've seen in five years," Wardell said.
Meanwhile, researchers are seeking ways to make pollination easier on traditional honeybees. They're experimenting with a different bee breed, known as Blue Orchards.
Blue Orchards don't live socially in colonies, instead raising broods individually in hollowed-out wood nests. Paramount is hoping to use them as a kind of "insurance in case something happens to the honeybees," Wardell said.
Farmers also have begun planting a species of self-fertilizing almond trees, which are just coming into production after a four-year maturation process. They still need bees, but pollination can occur with just one bee visit to the same flower.
Conventional almond trees require the bees to carry pollen from one tree's flower to another's.