Bret Adee and his 138 tractor-trailer loads of honeybees do a lot of traveling over the course of a year, from the alfalfa fields of his South Dakota hometown to the apple orchards of Washington to the wildflower-speckled forests of Mississippi -- some 6,000 miles roundtrip.
While the itinerary can change from year to year depending on weather and economics, there's one destination he would never think of passing up: the almond bloom expected to start this week in Kern County and the rest of the Central Valley.
"Everything we can get we bring across" to California, said Adee, a third-generation beekeeper whose family has participated in California's almond pollination for a quarter century.
It's a good thing, too. Bees are essential to producing the almonds that have become California's top agricultural export with close to $3 billion in global sales in 2011 -- twice that of second-place dairy.
The state's 91 million almond trees, a fifth of which grow in Kern County, rely on roughly 20 billion bees to carry pollen from one variety of trees to another. Otherwise, nuts will not form and grow into maturity.
The relationship is mutually beneficial. Just as almond pollen is among the finest sources of nutrition on honeybees' ever more limited menu, so the 1,500 U.S. beekeepers who gather for California's yearly almond bloom clear about $20 per colony they rent out. It adds up to about 60 percent of their income on average, with the rest derived from honey sales and secondary pollination destinations such as Texas' citrus crop and Maine's blueberries.
"Without the almond industry," Adee said, "the bee industry wouldn't exist."
But all is not well in the almond pollination, and it hasn't been for several years. Diverse threats are weakening honeybee populations, from viruses and mites to pesticide sensitivities and lack of forage.
The almond industry is keenly aware that its prosperity depends on thriving bee colonies, and has sponsored various research projects aimed an improving honeybee health.
"We are concerned about bee health and are committed partners in the effort to find and implement solutions," Robert K. "Bob" Curtis, the California Almond Board's associate director of agricultural affairs, noted in an email.
INCREASING BEE LOSSES
Historically, honeybee colonies have lost between 5 percent and 10 percent of their numbers each over the winter as cold saps their energy and depletes their nutritional reserves.
In the past decade, however, industry people say the annual bee die-off has soared, with some beekeepers reporting losing substantial shares of their bee populations -- a devastating blow for what are usually family-owned businesses.
"Thirty percent has become the new average," said Bakersfield bee broker Joe Traynor, whose business Scientific Ag Co. contracts with about three dozen beekeepers from California and other states. "It's tough being a beekeeper."
The result has been sharply higher colony rental prices since 2006. Only a decade ago, almond growers paid no more than about $40 per hive. But last year, a shortage of strong bee colonies set a new record of about $200 per hive. The average price reported in 2013 was $159.
Beekeepers say the high prices are necessary to cover the pollen patties, consisting primarily of brewer's yeast, and sugary syrups they feed their colonies to keep them strong through the winter.
Local growers initially balked at the high prices and quietly accused beekeepers of gouging. But criticism has subsided as more attention is devoted to a symptomatic ailment called colony collapse disorder, or CCD.
There is a sense among many bee people that the almond pollination is partly to blame for the disease's spread. It is believed to be the world's largest gathering of honeybees, and viruses and mites can easily move from one bee to another amid the almond pollen harvest.
SHARING THE BURDEN
Almond growers, beekeepers and researchers increasingly are working together to tackle the plight of the honeybee.
Scientific Ag Co., for example, dedicates $2 to research for every colony it deploys. That money may go toward experts at the University of California, Davis, or projects co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Support also comes from Paramount Farming Co., one of the state's largest almond producers. The company's bee biologist, Gordon Wardell, works closely with UC Davis researchers studying different plants that may provide diverse forage to complement almond trees.
California's drought, however, is a separate issue weighing heavily on beekeepers' pocketbooks. With fewer places to let their bees forage in the state, beekeepers are either having to travel farther to find natural sources of pollen or spend more on nutritional supplements.
Such is the dilemma facing beekeeper Mike Mulligan, a father of eight living west of Shafter. Traditionally, he has taken his bee colonies to spend the winter on the Central Coast, where pollen-producing plants have been plentiful.
Not this year.
"This year we were really hit by the drought," he said. "No flowers, no grasses, no anything." Consequently, he has spent thousands of dollars on sugar syrups and pollen supplements.
Now, he's not sure whether he'll participate in California's citrus pollination, which he used to do every year after the almond bloom as a way of providing nutrition to his bees so they could make honey. For whatever reason, he said, the citrus pollination hasn't resulted in much honey production lately.
"It's been real iffy the last few years," he said, adding that he is considering hauling his hives to canola fields in Oklahoma, just to ensure good honey production.
Similar sentiments are echoed across the beekeeping and almond industries: Honeybees aren't dying out so much as it's getting harder to keep them healthy.
So said Paramount's Wardell. He noted that growers have been able to secure a sufficient number of hives this year, but that the bees inside aren't as strong as they used to be.
"We've got plenty of numbers," he said. "It's just that the size of the hive might not be as high as in the past."