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With Bees In Trouble, Almond Farmers Try Trees That Don't Need 'Em

Earlier this year, beekeeper Brian Hiatt had millions of bees working to pollinate almond trees across California. Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio hide caption

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Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Earlier this year, beekeeper Brian Hiatt had millions of bees working to pollinate almond trees across California.

Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Beekeepers flock from all over the country to California every February and March to watch billions of honeybees buzz around the state's almond trees. Eighty percent of the country's commercial bees visit the Golden State each spring.

So I went to check out the scene at an almond orchard at the California State University, Fresno, in Central California.

"Really, the key is to stay calm around bees, because if you're afraid, then your body physiologically changes and they can sense that," beekeeper Brian Hiatt tells me. "They literally can smell fear."

He should know: In this orchard alone, Hiatt has about 1.5 million bees.

Spring is usually a really busy time for beekeepers. But this year, Hiatt says he is worried that a relatively new variety of almond called Independence could harm the longevity of his business.

Independence almond trees are easy to harvest, and they make tasty almonds. But what really sets them apart is the fact that they're self-fertile — meaning they technically don't need bees to pollinate their flowers because they breed with themselves, says David Doll with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Merced.

Doll runs the The Almond Doctor blog, and he says strong wind moves the sticky pollen millimeters within each blossom to the female part of each flower and in turn, creates a single almond. (Some farmers say if you use just a few bees, you'll get an even bigger crop.) That's a boon for farmers, who spend lots of money hiring bees to pollinate their crop.

Ben Barra guesses there are a couple of thousand acres of the Independence almond variety in California. He says there is a growing waiting list for new sprigs of the tree. Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio hide caption

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Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Ben Barra guesses there are a couple of thousand acres of the Independence almond variety in California. He says there is a growing waiting list for new sprigs of the tree.

Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

"There are a lot of these old almonds that still need bees," Hiatt notes. But as Independence almonds become more popular, he thinks he will lose profits.

Others in the industry — including Gene Brandi with the American Beekeeping Federation — see things differently, especially since a colony collapse disorder has killed as much as 40 percent of the honeybees in the West. "I know how difficult it has been for our industry to supply the bees that are needed," Brandi says.

And farmers like Josh Pitgliano from Tulare County are loving Independence almonds. Pitgliano has several hundred acres of the self-fertile variety — he first started planting Independence trees six years ago.

He says he likes that with Independence almond trees, he has to use less than half the number of bees. Whereas most farmers place two hives per acre, Pitgliano scrapes by with half a hive per acre on his orchards of Independence.

That translates to big savings: An average hive of bees costs around $180 to hire for the season.

Plus, Independence almond trees comes with another perk — easy harvest.

"I come in here once and I harvest all the nuts, all at one time," Pitgliano says. In contrast, traditional almond orchards have several varieties of the tree planted in each field and are harvested multiple times.

And the nuts these trees make are just as good, says farmer Ben Barra. When he realized he didn't have to hire any bees at all with the Independence variety, he was hooked. (When I visited his farm, there were some wild bees buzzing around.)

Ben Barra farms 18 acres of Independence almonds southwest of Fresno, Calif. He says this will be his last foray into farming. Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio hide caption

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Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Ben Barra farms 18 acres of Independence almonds southwest of Fresno, Calif. He says this will be his last foray into farming.

Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Barra has farmed everything from sugar beets to eggplant to potatoes. He tore out his peaches and plums after he had a really bad season, losing over $100,000.

So he latched on to the idea of a crop that didn't require many bees, that he'd only have to harvest once. And it seems to be working out: Barra says the Independence trees have produced more than he originally expected.

"You can't believe it," Barra says. "The first year we did 6,000 [pounds], and then we did 17,000 [pounds]. Last year we did 31,000 [pounds]."

This year he hopes the acreage's yield is over 40,000 pounds, but he realizes he is taking a chance on new tree variety that hasn't stood the test of time.

"When I gambled with this," Barra says, "this was the last shot that I was making."

Correction March 23, 2016

A previous version of this story misidentified the full name of Fresno State. It is the California State University, Fresno, not the University of California, Fresno.