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The bee business

March 21, 2013, 10:54 AM UTC
European honeybees are trucked by the billions to California's Central Valley. Their keepers come for the almond bloom, which begins mid-February.
Photo: Benjamin Lowy

Billions of bees arrive in mid-February, trucked and humming inside the metal bellies of thousands of semitrailers. Their keepers roll the hives out in white wooden boxes, plopping them down two to an acre across 600 miles of the most productive farmland on earth. They coat California’s Central Valley like a buzzy blanket. It is the largest gathering of honeybees in the world, all here for a nut.

Like the bees, almond trees hail from Europe, but the soil west of the Sierras is more fertile and expansive. Today 80% of the world’s almonds are grown here. The nut’s market price has more than tripled since 1996, when almonds averaged about 96¢ a pound. Now the wholesale price peaks at about $3.50. California’s almond farmers produce about 2 billion pounds in a good year. California almonds are a roughly $3 billion-a-year industry. The year begins with honeybees gorging on nectar from the new almond blossoms.” It’s just a big sucking sound,” says Dave Hackenberg, a commercial keeper who sends his Pennsylvania-based bees out for the almond bloom. “It’s sucking all the bees out West. Half the keepers on the East Coast are out there for it.”

No other insect pollinates as efficiently as the European honeybee. Dan Cummings, an almond farmer whose family has been in the business since 1920, is also a beekeeper, and he has experimented with other bugs as a means of pollination, so as not to rely solely on the honeybees. He’s tried blue orchard bees, which burrow in the ground. “They are a very poor substitute,” he says. “And all other insects are a terrible substitute.” Hand pollination won’t cut it either.

The need for honeybees creates a high price for their hives, which almond farmers rent from beekeepers for the duration of the bloom at $155 a pop — but bee shortages can cause the price to go up to as much as $220. About 65% of all commercially managed honeybees in the U.S. show up to work the bloom. “It is the marquee event, the driving economic force in the honeybee industry,” Cummings says. Just a few decades ago a hive rented for $24. The price has risen, in part, because bees are suddenly scarce.

“I’ve stuck my head in a beehive for 50 years and seen some changes,” Hackenberg says. A decade ago the bees started dying at double the usual rate, and sometimes much faster. Some keepers lose 70% of their bees over the winter. The historical die-off rate is about 15%.

The mysterious ailment was given a name: colony collapse disorder. CCD has many causes and no easy fixes. Keepers and scientists say that trying to pin down the culprit in CCD is like trying to find out what causes poverty. “You put a hive of bees out in a field, they’re gonna fly about three miles in any direction. So whether it’s the pollen or the nectar or the water or other things they visit, if there’s contaminants, they’re bringing it home,” Hackenberg says. It’s a lifestyle problem, he adds.

The industrious bee is essential to our industry, which too often applies insect-killing chemicals to crops, and favors some foods over others. “Give the bees a balanced diet,” Cummings says, “and we’ll see some healthier bees.” Bees, like people, require moderation.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the April 8, 2013 issue of Fortune.