Industry relies on hives for hire -
Published Monday, March 19, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:47 pm
Industry relies on hives for hire

>> Early reports show California on track for a record almond crop this year: 1.9 billion pounds, or about 80 percent of the world’s supply.
>> More than two-thirds of that will go to consumers in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and other international markets. It’s California’s single biggest export crop, worth $3 billion a year.
>> About 6,500 California almond ranchers harvest 750,000 acres of trees, an increase of 42 percent over the past decade.
>> That growth has been fed partly by recent dietary studies suggesting almonds may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Sources: Almond Board of California; USDA

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.

Read more related stories
Technology – including Google Glass – gets a try-on at Omaha Infotec conference
New Hastings business helps your personal history live on
Alibaba stake fuels Yahoo stock’s rise
Business digest: Big banks might need to hold more capital, Yellen says
18-year-old's fashion-design company wins Maverick Business Plan Competition
In brief: Zebra to spend more than $3 billion on Motorola business
Union Pacific's ‘Big Boy’ locomotive takes the road back to life
Beals: Boy offers lessons of service, simplicity
Caterer's move to downtown Omaha warehouse means new jobs, event center
Crew working to disassemble International Nutrition plant
Heinz offers buyouts to all Pittsburgh workers
SBA loan activity up in Nebraska
Banker leads Omaha branch's 'Happy' dance video
5 things to know about tax day
Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger 'fiesta ducks' on sale at Berkshire meeting
Nebraska Crossing Outlets stores, layout
West Corp. deal to expand its alert business
Tech talent, tax incentives help lure MindMixer to Kansas City
The Record: Bankruptcies, April 15
More have had personal information stolen
In brief: Retail sales gain is best since 2012
Tablets, apps for kids become big business
For junior bankers, a day off doesn’t shrink workload
The Record: Building permits, April 15
Part-time college professors push for higher pay
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Shoreline Golf Club
$40 for 2 Players, 18 Holes of Golf with Cart ($85 Value)
Buy Now
< >
Inside Business
To submit an announcement for "Inside Business", click here. For questions call (402) 444-1371 or e-mail
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »