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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Gordon Wardell, a bee biologist at Paramount Farming Co., checks some hives near a Paramount Farms almond orchard west in Lost Hills.

Research in Kern County may overturn conventional wisdom and help local almond growers make better use of the honeybees they rent.

Half a dozen technicians headed by Frank Eischen, a nationally recognized bee expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are exploring the question of how many bee colonies are needed to provide maximum pollination of almond orchards.

The traditional answer has been that two colonies, almost regardless of their strength, are needed to pollinate one acre of almond trees.

But Eischen suspects that may be too simplistic an approach. So he and his co-workers are painstakingly measuring how closely pollination is tied to crop yield, then sharing the results with growers so they can make better-informed decisions.

"What we're looking for is that bottom line," he said. "If you rent more colonies at $200 a colony, is that going to pay?"

Funded by beekeepers, almond growers and the USDA, the 2-year-old project involves mapping bee colonies in local orchards and counting individual almond buds and pollen grains.

So far, Eischen says, the strength of each individual bee colony makes a difference in yield. That assertion, long championed by Bakersfield bee broker Joe Traynor, has only gained wide acceptance in recent years as bee rental prices have soared.

Eischen further suspects honeybees become less productive as the bee-to-bloom ratio increases, possibly because they "bounce around" more to seek out better forage. He likened this phenomenon to the old adage that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

Grower Richard Enns, who farms almonds west of Bakersfield, said Eischen's work will help farmers make the most of a precious resource and "we can make the bees stretch further."

Shafter-area beekeeper Mike Mulligan agreed, saying the research could allow almond growers to better use their honeybee resources.

"It's going to be valuable in the event of a bee shortage in the future," he said.

-- Staff writer John Cox