Disappearing Honeybees: That buzz is critical to Kern's economy

Disappearing Honeybees: That buzz is critical to Kern's economy »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A third of the food you eat requires the pollination of honeybees.

The soybeans used to make vegetable oil and the mustard in your sandwich are both the work of busy bees, pollinating at farms across the country.

In Kern County, thousands of honeybees are busy in almond orchards, pollinating trees during the bloom season.

"When it's in full bloom, the trees literally hum with bees. We bring in about two colonies per acre, and they do the job. You can hear them up there working," said entomologist Gordon Wardell.

Rosemary's Family Creamery depends on almonds from the San Joaquin Valley to provide tasty treats to hundreds of ice cream customers. The family business uses about 300 pounds of almonds a month to make toasted almond ice cream, one of its top sellers.

"We try to use all local ingredients if we can," says Frank De Marco, who opened the business 26 years ago.

In Kern County, almonds are a commodity valued at more than $435 million. They're the top agricultural export in the state and the largest specialty crop export in the country. But according to the Kern County Farm Bureau, the cost of growing almonds has gone up dramatically.

In 2000, a pound of almonds cost about $2. Today, that same pound runs about $6.

Bee pollination is a high cost factor for growers.

"If we don't have a good year in pollination, there's not going to be as many nuts on the tree, and it's supply and demand. If your supply is low, the demand is high and the price is going to go up," said Wardell .

Wardell is conducting research for Paramount Farms, home of nearly 45,000 acres of almond trees in the San Joaquin Valley. He studies and tracks the bees on the orchards. Some hives are healthy, but not all hives are as promising. Some hives have experienced a phenomenon termed CCD, or colony collapse disorder.

"One week, the bees will be there and they'll be fine. Everything will be working great and they'll go back and the colonies will be empty or there'll just be a queen and few newly emerged worker bees. All the adult bees have just disappeared," Wardell said.

The USDA is reporting a 28 percent to 35 percent drop in bee colonies across the country because of CCD. No one has been able to pinpoint one particular cause to the mystery. So, last year, legislators set aside almost $10 million to fund CCD research.

"It's pesticides, parasites, pathogens. It's all of these things working together," said Wardell.

Paramount Farms is funding its own research to find alternative bee types.

"This year we put up approximately 1,200 of these in the orchard. It's called osmia lignaria, the blue-orchard bee," Wardell said.

The idea is to supplement honeybees with blue-orchard bees.

"We decided to test to see if the two species would work in unison in an orchard or if there would be a problem. Do they play well together? Sure enough they did well," Wardell said.

While hopes for this native California bee are high, it is only an experiment at this point. But understanding the bee and its pollination could be the start of a new cycle in life.

"Man has learned to support the bees, and the bees support crop, and the crop then supports the man. The same evolution has to go on with the osmia," Wardell said.