Migrant bees key to state's crops

Rising demand drives up prices as supply of insect labor dwindles.

In sheer numbers, it's the biggest migration of workers in the world.

This month, nearly three-quarters of all the nation's commercial honeybees will be in California's ever-expanding almond orchards to do
the work that only a bee can do : gather pollen from the blossom of one tree and drop it in the blossom of another.

Drawn by the rocketing prices now offered by almond farmers, beekeepers from as far away as Florida are hauling more than 2,200
tractor-trailer loads of hive boxes into the state. That's at least 10 billion bees.

"It's supply and demand. That's what drives the whole dang thing," said Brent Woodworth, 52, a beekeeper from Halliday, N.D., who has
trucked his 3,700 hives to California this year.

For a month's business in the almond orchards, Woodworth's bees will bring him about $520,000, a total that has tripled in the past decade
as almond acreage has grown and bee supplies have dwindled. After he's finished in California, Woodworth will move many of the hives to
Washington to pollinate apple orchards, and then haul them to North Dakota for the honey season.

The big money to be made in pollination -- beekeepers charge up to $140 or more per hive -- has transformed the bee industry.

Until fairly recently, commercial beekeepers generally focused on honey production and moved their bees just a few times a year, if at
all. Now, thanks largely to lucrative almond-pollination contracts, many, if not most, make the bulk of their revenue by providing
insect-labor services. Bees are essential to almond growing : if a tree doesn't get pollinated, it won't produce nuts.

In San Joaquin Valley towns like Oakdale, 30 miles east of Stockton and within easy reach of the almond orchards, entire hotels fill with
beekeeping crews this time of year. Woodworth alone rents six rooms --for his wife and himself, his seven-person crew, and his parents, who
also keep bees.

Woodworth has kept bees since childhood. On a recent morning, he worked among 1,450 hives east of town, on a grassy slope with
scattered oak trees and cattle. He was dressed in a sweat shirt and jeans, wearing for protection only an oilcloth hat and a yellow veil.
He brushed clusters of bees from his arms with bare hands.

Many of the hives had just arrived from winter storage in Idaho. Such long trips drain the colonies, and Woodworth and his crew pried open
each box to check their health.

While the roving pollination business has poured cash into a U.S. bee industry that has been contracting for two decades, it has not led to
an increase in the domestic bee population. In fact, the number of bee colonies in the country fell in 2005 to the lowest level since at
least 1939, the earliest year for which federal data are available.

That trend is of great concern to the California almond industry, which projects 30 percent growth -- to 750,000 acres -- by 2010. In
2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, almond growers sold their crop for a record $2.34 billion.

With much to gain from a growing almond industry, beekeepers say they're doing their best to expand.

"Each one of us is trying to raise more hives," beekeeper Gene Brandi said at a meeting of the Delta Bee Club in Los Banos on Tuesday.

But, Brandi said, most struggle just to keep their bee populations stable.

Hives nationwide are infested with exotic mites that feed on bee larvae and infect the respiratory tracts of mature bees. What's more,
a mysterious new condition has recently appeared : "colony collapse disorder," a poorly understood condition that can cause entire
colonies of bees to simply disappear.

"We've got to solve this die-off problem," Brandi said.

At the Los Banos meeting, which packed the local Masonic Hall, several bee disease experts spoke to a group of 100 beekeepers, many from out
of state. The long cafeteria tables were decorated with almond tree cuttings, their white and pink blossoms just starting to open.

One factor likely contributing to the bees' ill health is the bee industry's increasing mobility.

For one thing, gathering bees from all over the country in the San Joaquin Valley helps the spread of disease. A parasite carried by a colony of Florida bees, say, can spread to a group of North Dakota bees, if the two happen to be working in adjacent orchards.

"There's a huge mixing bowl out here," said Jeff Pettis, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Research
Laboratory in Maryland, who spoke at the meeting.

In addition, Pettis said, long-distance hauling stresses the bees, killing some and leaving the survivors weak and open to infection.

In the pasture near Oakdale, Woodworth kicked at a long pile of bee carcasses. The night before, his crew had unwrapped a tarp from a
just-arrived trailer stacked with his wooden hive boxes, and dead bees sifted to the ground.

"A truckload situation like that is real unnatural for bees," said Woodworth, a compact man with blue eyes and a trim red moustache. "The
cold weather really stresses 'em."

Another thing that's unnatural is for bees to be active at this time of year at all. If Woodworth's bees weren't under contract to
pollinate 28 almond orchards -- which typically bloom around Valentine's Day -- they would be huddled together in their hives,
waiting out the winter.

The population of a hive rises and falls through the year, varying from 10,000 to 40,000 or more. The low point comes in winter. That's
part of the reason almond growers pay such a steep price for pollination : bees are scarce in February.

On this morning, Woodworth and his crew were getting the bees in shape to go to work. They stepped briskly from hive to hive, serving
breakfast : six quarts of watered-down corn syrup and a homemade protein patty that resembled an oversized PowerBar.

Most of the hives appear to have come through the ride from Idaho in good health, he said. That's important. If a beekeeper delivers a
batch of weak bees, an almond grower may refuse to pay.

Almond growers say bee rental now makes up about 20 percent of their operating costs. Farmers typically rent two to three hives per acre of
almonds. As almond acreage grows and bee populations continue to falter, prices seem likely to rise.

So the industry is hunting for alternatives. Varieties of bees that do not make honey and thus have not traditionally been raised by
beekeepers show some promise as pollinators. Researchers also hope to develop a self-pollinating variety of almond tree, though that goal is
still far off.

Almond grower Dan Cummings, who has 4,000 acres of orchards in the Sacramento Valley, has hedged against rising bee prices by buying a
stake in an established beekeeping operation.

"I wanted to exercise a little more control over that part of the business," Cummings said. "If we're already using 70 percent (of the
nation's bees), supplies are going to get even tighter."

For now, though, most growers depend entirely on the hundreds of out-of-state beekeepers like Woodworth.

Last week, he and his crew were busy moving the hives into orchards near the little town of Waterford, 10 miles southeast of Oakdale. With
a special forklift, Woodworth lifted pallets of hives from his flatbed truck and set them down on the grass at the end of a row of trees that
disappeared over a low rise to the north. The almond blooms were just beginning to show.

Once the hives are in place, Woodworth's work is done -- until late March, when it's time to pick up the boxes and head to Washington for
apple season.

Left alone in an almond orchard, the bees will fan out from the clusters of hives, seeking blossoms.

"They know what to do," Woodworth said.

The Sacremento Bee
By Jim Downing - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PST Monday, February 12, 2007