When biologist Gordon Wardell talks about bees, he sounds like an evangelist. He can gush for hours about everything from the bee's role in nature to its power as an economic development strategy.
The latter is something he came to appreciate while teaching beekeeping to poor families in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
"Basically, we found that three beehives in a back yard was the equivalent of having one more person in the family working," Wardell boasted.
Paramount Farming Co. also is a big fan of bees. The Bakersfield-based agricultural giant needs them to pollinate its roughly 40,000 acres of almond trees.
But unfortunately for Paramount and other orchard owners, the honeybee traditionally used in commercial agriculture is under siege. Last year alone, more than a third of the nation's honeybees died from colony collapse disorder, which is a fancy name for bees dying off in large numbers for unknown reasons.
There are lots of theories -- a parasitic mite that carries viruses, a fungal pathogen, increased use of pesticides, malnutrition caused by reduced diet diversity.
Some of the best minds in the country are trying to solve the mystery, but a solution could be years away, and growers need bees now.
Enter Wardell, a scientist known for his work on a nutritional supplement that helps honeybees feasting on a single crop maintain a balanced diet.
Paramount has wooed him away from his work in Tucson, Ariz., to lead a grand experiment with another bee that could at least supplement, or maybe supplant, the honeybee in commercial groves.
"It just gives us a backup," said Joe MacIlvaine, president of Paramount Farming. "We view it as a risky situation when you only have one source of pollination, in other words, honeybees, and our entire crop is dependent on honeybees for pollination."
The potential savior is the Osmia Lignaria, also known as the orchard mason bee or the blue orchard bee, depending on what part of the country you're in.
It's a shiny, almost translucent navy blue, and can be found in the wild throughout the United States. There aren't enough of the California variety to be of use to Central Valley almond growers, and there's been more research done on the Utah variety, so that's the one Wardell is working with.
Paramount started out with 120,000 females, but is hoping they'll reproduce to a population of about 500,000. Smaller studies of the blue orchard bee have taken place around the country, and the bees have been used commercially to grow apples, cherries and other fruits. But until now, no one has attempted to research them as almond pollinators on such a large scale.
Lisa Novich sells blue orchard bees to small orchards and backyard gardeners through her company, Knox Cellars Native Bee Pollinators in Sammamish, Wash.
"They're really great for early spring fruits, a wonderful little bee," she said. "They're docile, so they hardly ever sting people. They work better in mixed-use orchards, though. They're much less effective in monocultures.
"But as long as you keep their habitat clean and raise them in reasonable numbers, they do quite well."
And therein lies the rub. Insects, like people, are more susceptible to disease when large numbers are crammed into one area.
"Any time you try to rear anything in a bulk fashion, you run into problems," said Diana Sammataro, a research scientist at the USDA's Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson. "It's like with cows. When you put a bunch of them together, you have to put them on antibiotics because they aren't meant to live like that."
Yet almond growers need huge numbers of bees to thrive on a single crop. Almonds are Kern County's fourth largest agricultural commodity, a $386.6 million industry, according to the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards.
Wardell's job is to observe what blue orchard bees like and don't like when they're grown on a massive scale and figure out if there's a way to replicate favorable conditions when almond trees are blooming.
"I've never had so much fun in my life," he said. "I can't believe somebody's paying me to hang out and play with bees all day."
Toying with the seasons
Blue orchard bees take 10 months to evolve from eggs to fully grown adults. Neither the California nor the Utah variety would normally be ready in February, when almond growers need them, so Wardell tricked his Utah guests into thinking winter was over by cooling them for 150 days, then raising the temperature to lure them from cocoons.
His laboratory is two fields of flowers, five acres each, protected by what amounts to giant mesh tents. Constructed last fall, each is entered through a corridor with three doors designed to keep bees from escaping.
It's too early to say whether the blue orchard is a viable pollinator for almond orchards, Wardell said.
"One thing we've found is that the (blue orchard) and the honeybee play well together," he said. "When two species have to compete for limited resources, they work symmetrically, filling in where the other one misses."
It's not clear, though, which of the two bees is the most productive.
One blue orchard bee can do the work of as many as 100 honeybees because they are more efficient, but honeybees outnumber them because their colonies are far more dense.
Wardell said he's having a ball checking it all out. One of his first experiments was to buy artificial flowers, glue them to wooden stakes and put dabs of pollen on them to see if blue orchard bees would go to them.
It worked, until some phacelia and colencia he planted started blooming. "They love this stuff," he said, touching a flower and holding up a fingertip to show a covering of fine dust. "Look at this. The pollen comes right off."
Wardell paused a moment, narrowed his eyes and scanned the field for the source of some chirping. "You!" he said, spotting the culprit, a small toad. "They eat my bees. When I find one, I evict him."
Other intruders have enjoyed a warmer reception. Wardell was pulling up mustard weed, for instance, until he noticed that the bees seemed to like it. Now he lets it grow.
Wardell also has observed that the bees tend to like east better than west, and south better than north. He's not sure why, but because bees fly in a particular pattern, that could have implications for orchard design.
Paramount won't say what it's paying for the study, and isn't sure yet whether the blue orchard would be cost effective even if it's found to work.
But the company has a strong incentive to fund the research. As honeybees have become more scarce, the cost of renting honeybee hives each season has skyrocketed.
It's now more lucrative to rent honeybees to commercial agriculture than it is to sell honey.
Rent has more than tripled from $45 a month per colony in the late 1990s to as much as $160 per month a colony today, said beekeeper Randy Oliver, owner of Golden West Apiaries in Grass Valley and a spokesman for the California State Beekeepers Association.
"The growers have always screamed bloody murder that beekeepers are going to put them out of business with pollination prices, but we don't set the prices," he said. "Growers have bid them up."
However prices got so high, growers are eager for some relief. Paramount says it will expand testing as its bee population grows.
Wardell is looking forward to that as his first season with his new research subjects comes to a close.
"It's so sad to see the numbers dwindling as I go out to the cages," he said.