When was the last time you saw a honeybee on a flower? If the
answer is "not recently," it wouldn't be surprising.
It's not easy being a bee in America. In the 1980s, wild bees in
the United States were devastated by an invading parasite, the
varroa, or "vampire mite." Since then, the situation has gotten even
The bee population has been steadily dropping, mainly because of
varroa but also because of pesticides and predator birds.
Now, as pollinating season hits full swing in the United States,
farmers of the 90 or so crops that depend on bees for pollination
are feeling the tightest pinch ever.
"For the first time in our history [pollination] is a limiting
factor in crop production," says Keith Delaplane, professor of
entomology at the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural
and Environmental Sciences. "For a long time ... it was one of those
things that just took care of self."
With virtually no wild honeybees left, US farmers rely on
commercial bee colonies. But this year only about 2.6 million
colonies remain to pollinate the millions of acres of melons,
cucumbers, almonds, apples, avocados, and kiwi, to name some of the
crops that depend on honeybees. That slender bee army - down from
3.2 million colonies in 1990 - is all that stands between Americans
and a vastly more boring diet.
Scientists and beekeepers are feeling the pressure. Hope for crop
pollination this year rests temporarily on new chemicals to kill the
bee parasites, but the mites have been developing resistance to
them. So researchers are exploring long-term solutions such as
genetically altered bees that can resist mites or bees that are
imported from eastern Russia and have adapted to the varroa mite.
Some bee experts worry that regional shortfalls in bee
availability are only going to get worse before they improve.
"We're very concerned about the declining effectiveness of the
chemicals," says Troy Fore, executive director of the American Bee
Keeping Federation in Jessup, Ga. He says there's a threat the mites
could wipe out more commercial bee colonies in coming years if new
solutions are not found soon.
Impact on almonds
Perhaps the most extreme example is California's big almond crop
(1 billion pounds annually) that requires pollination every
February. This year, there were barely enough bees to pollinate the
state's 520,000 acres of almonds, says Joe Traynor, a pollination
broker in Bakersfield, Calif., who matches farmers with beekeepers.
With two bee colonies needed per acre, more than 1 million hives
are required. California has about 500,000 hives and about another
500,000 were trucked in. …