For more than 200 years, European honeybees have been the preferred means of pollinating North American crops.
But they're not the only bees capable of the task.
With the nation's honeybee populations declining precipitously for several reasons, some almond growers are investigating another species known as blue orchard bees, or orchard mason bees (osmia lignaria ).
This iridescent black insect, a native bee that neither produces honey nor lives in hives nor stings (normally), holds particular promise partly because it can become active when almond trees bloom.
Just as importantly, blue orchard bees work well around honeybees -- and even complement them. They tend to pollinate the blossoms honeybees miss, and do so at a speed their honey-producing co-workers could never hope to match.
There are drawbacks, however.
It takes years of hard, slow work to raise enough of them to pollinate crops on a commercial scale. What's more, because they're not social bees, a large portion of them -- maybe half -- fly away when released, never to return.
The good news is, blue orchards are industrious. Working without the help of other species, 1,000 of them can pollinate an acre of almond trees, a job that generally requires at least 12 times as many honeybees.
Gordon Wardell, a bee biologist with Paramount Farming Co., is undaunted. He employs a crew of workers who patiently sift through the black orchard bees' nests, setting aside viable cocoons for cold storage until conditions are right for them to start pollinating.
Wardell has worked with blue orchard bees for five years. He expects it could take five years before he develops his stocks to the point where a decision can be made about incorporating them into Paramount's almond pollination of 8,000 honeybee colonies.
He emphasized Paramount is not trying to put beekeepers out of business, only establish a backup plan in case of a honeybee shortage.
"We want to be certain that we have reserves if we need them," he said.
-- Staff writer John Cox