Photo: California’s Central Valley almond crop is the largest in the world. (Sam Eaton, Marketplace)
MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: A strange AIDS-like disease is wiping out an unprecendented number of honeybees in the U.S. This couldn’t have come at a worse time. About 80 percent of the nation’s commercial bees are needed to pollinate California’s almond orchards at this time of year. But with bee losses that sometimes approached a hundred percent, many beekeepers may not be able to stay in business. That has some experts predicting a pollination crisis for the country’s fruits and vegetables. From the Marketplace’s Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.
SAM EATON: Lance Sundberg calls himself a flower chaser. But these days the seasoned Montana beekeeper feels stung by death. He’s lost a third of the 5,600 honeybee hives he moves around the country to pollinate farmer’s crops. And he considers himself among the lucky.
LANCE SUNDBERG: Currently, there’s a lot of beekeepers that are losing 80 percent.
A condition dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder has killed off tens of thousands of bee colonies from Pennsylvania to California. Scientists say the cause is still a mystery. But the impact is already being felt here in California’s Central Valley.
Sundberg cracks open one of his hives. The honey racks are covered with bees. This is what it’s supposed to look and sound like.
SUNDBERG: The collapsed one you’d open the lid and there’d just be a hollow sound. You can hear it pop and then there’s nothing inside. It’s completely gone.
California’s almond harvest is the largest in the world, valued at around $1.5 billion.
Growers say there are enough bees this year. But bee researcher Eric Mussen says the coming years are anyone’s guess.
ERIC MUSSEN: The problem in the long haul is if you keep losing an awful lot of colonies and you’re trying to build your numbers back up, during the time that the colonies are rebuilding they’re not making honey. They’re not being rented for pollination. So you’re not getting any income. And you just can’t do that year after year after year and survive financially.
The implications for agriculture are huge. Honeybees pollinate about $15 billion worth of U.S. fruits and vegetables. And Mussen says record prices for almonds are driving that industry. It’s expected to grow 15 percent over the next few years.
MUSSEN: That’s a big increase and it’s gonna be a big increase in the demand for bees.
Almond growers are openly worried.
Dan Cummings inspects a patch of his 4,000-acre farm North of Sacramento. He plucks a blossom from a tree and strips the petals.
DAN CUMMINGS: And then inside, you can just begin to see that little white almond nutlet there starting to form.
EATON: So the bee does that?
CUMMINGS: The bee does that. Yes indeed.
In Sacramento, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.
Photo: Sundberg has spent more than $100,000 on Australian bees to suppliment his dead hives (shown above). (Sam Eaton, Marketplace)
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