MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A new report out today says that pesticides are just one of the problems facing the bees and other creatures that pollinate many of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat.
The study from the National Academy of Sciences warns that the country is losing pollinators, and it says that could have a big impact on some farmers.
NPR's John Nielsen has the story, which begins in a sprawling almond orchard near Los Banos, where the fall harvest is under way.
(Soundbite of farming machines)
JOHN NIELSEN: It's almost funny how almonds get harvested. Great big low-slung metal machines, the kind that look like giant metal one-clawed crabs, go driving up and down, grabbing hold of each tree with the big pincers and shaking the heck out of it until the almonds all fall down onto the ground. Next to the milk, this is the most valuable product produced in the San Joaquin Valley, and it wouldn't exist without commercial bees.
Mr. GENE BRANDI (Bee Owner): I'm looking for the queen bee for you here, John. Let's see if we can find her.
NIELSEN: Gene Brandi owns the European bees that put the almonds on those almond trees. Last spring, his bees flew around inside this orchard, moving pollen from tree to tree, which allowed them to make their nuts.
Brandi's bees live inside big white boxes. When he opens the boxes up to check on how his bees are doing, Brandi wears a big round hat with mesh that keeps bees off his face. To keep the bees calm, he shoots puffs of dark grey smoke into the hives, after dropping matches into a beat-up metal box called a smoker.
Mr. BRANDI: A smoker is a bee keeper's best friend, other than the bees themselves.
NIELSEN: Brandi's been a beekeeper since 1978. In that time the bees he owns have pollinated not just almond trees, but cranberries, blueberries, cherries, apples, plums, melons, avocados, and a wide variety of vegetables.
According to the new report, beekeepers like Brandi help put the bloom on at least 90 important crops. Many of these beekeepers ship their bees around the country so that they can be in the right place at the right time.
Brandi says it takes a lot of healthy honeybees to do this massive job, bees like the ones we're looking at right now.
Mr. BRANDI: Big full bodies, full wings. They are gathering nectar, gathering pollen. These are basically happy contented bees.
NIELSEN: Keeping bees fat and happy isn't easy, he says. You have to watch out for everything from freakish weather to predators, like bears and skunks. Brandi says the skunks come in at night and scratch at the front of the wooden hives.
Mr. BRANDI: And get the bees to come out, and they'll just eat bees. They'll fill up their stomach with bees. They don't want honey. They want bees.
NIELSEN: But Brandi says bears and skunks are nothing compared to the latest threat facing his industry. It's a tiny Asian mite that sucks the juices out of European honeybees, crippling and then wiping out entire colonies.
Scientists know this mite as the Varroa destructor. Beekeepers call it the vampire mite. According to the new report, the vampire mite devastated the nation's wild honeybee hives in the late 1990s; then it turned on the commercial colonies.
Brandi, who owns 2,000 hives, says his bees got hit hard in the winter of 2004. He remembers pulling the lids off boxes and hearing silence.
Mr. BRANDI: And I end up with a 35 percent winter loss that year. That's the biggest loss of bees that I'd ever had up to that point, and it was no fun. We had, you know, 700 dead colonies in the warehouse by the end of that winter.
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NIELSEN: It's hard to overstate the damage these mites are doing to the nation's most important pollinators. Researchers say they have helped reduce bee numbers by nearly 30 percent over the last 25 years.
As a result, even as almond growers and other farmers need more pollinators, there are far fewer commercial bees to go around. And some experts worry that the vampire mites could be everywhere again this winter.
Eric Mussen is a bee expert at the University of California at Davis.
Mr. ERIC MUSSEN (University of California, Davis): This year is another one of those years where the bees are not particularly strong and healthy, and so, unfortunately, I am afraid that we are looking forward to another year of significant so-called winter losses and fewer bees for next spring.
NIELSEN: Standing near a study hive, Mussen says he worries that these mite attacks could help put a lot of beekeepers out of business. That could accelerate a long-term decline in the number of commercial beekeepers. After all, these are jobs that people have to want to do.
Mr. MUSSEN: You basically have to get up before dawn, work until it's beyond dark, and so the next day you're up before dawn and working until sunset again.
NIELSEN: Experts say it's possible that other bee species could take the place of some of these commercial bees.
One of these experts is Robbin Thorp, an emeritus professor at UC Davis. He's been studying native bees for more than 40 years now.
Professor THORP (UC Davis): So this is our museum, the R.M. Bohart Museum of Entomology.
NIELSEN: Several thousand wild bees are lined up in the wide glass drawers inside this compact museum. Thorp turns a crank that opens up a row and finds one kind of bee that could be helpful.
Prof. THORP: Well, there's BOB.
Prof. THORP: Blue orchard bee. It's been commercially used as a pollinator for apples.
NIELSEN: There are lots of other wild bees that are now pollinating crops, Thorp says. Unfortunately, many of these bees may also be in decline, according to the new report. Ironically, the farms that need these bees the most turn out to be a big part of the problem.
Giant weed-free farms that destroy habitat and use a lot of pesticides are the worst offenders, Thorp says. Then he pulls open a drawer that's full of small black bumblebees that used to be quite common up in Oregon. Last year, he found only one.
Prof. THORP: And that was the first time in three years that I had seen one.
NIELSEN: Efforts to restore habitat that might support wild bees are now underway, says Thorp. Meantime, lots of entomologists are looking for ways to kill the vampire mites.
The question now is whether these new programs will pay off in time to help avert a looming pollination crisis, one that might begin with the news that there are not enough commercial bees to pollinate California's ever-bigger almond orchards.
A symbol of this potential crisis passes by the UC Davis campus every fall, when gigantic numbers of commercial honeybees migrate into California for the mild winters. The trick is that these bees don't fly west on their own wings, but inside the wooden boxes piled up in tractor trailers that come rumbling down the interstate freeways. Unofficially, this is the biggest insect migration in the country.
John Nielsen, NPR News.
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