STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a reminder that every part of the food chain affects the rest of it. The California drought is affecting bees. That's because the shortage of water has damaged the agriculture industry, which means bees have a shortage of crops to pollinate, which means beekeepers are on edge. Here's Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero
EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: As Gene Brandi approaches a colony of honeybees near a field of blooming alfalfa an hour north of Fresno, he uses smoke from a canister of burning burlap to calm the bees.
GENE BRANDI: Smoke helps to mask the pheromones that they communicate with.
ROMERO: Brandi's worked with bees since the early '70s. He has more than 2,000 hives across the state with around 30,000 bees in each one.
BRANDI: I'm going to pull out this next frame here, looking for the queen again. There she is.
ROMERO: The lack of rain and snow has reduced the amount of plants the bees feed on, which, in turn, limits the amount of pollen and nectar the bees collect. Normally, there are crops and wildflowers blooming here year-round. This year in the state, there are just not enough plants and trees in bloom to keep many commercial beekeepers profitable. But Brandi is managing to keep his head above water by strategically placing his bees in the few spots where there are both crops and water. A well is pumping water into a canal on this farm. Nearby, cotton and alfalfa crops are growing. It's enough to keep his bees happy, but fallow farmland surrounds the area.
BRANDI: In the drought years, we just don't make as much honey. I mean, we're very thankful that we have places like this where the bees have made some honey this summer.
ROMERO: Brandi says because of the lack of natural food for the honeybees, many beekeepers have to feed their colonies processed bee food, which is a mixture of pollen and oil. They're also feeding the bees a honey substitute made of sugar syrup.
BRANDI: If there's not adequate feed, we need to supply it. Otherwise, they're not going to make it. They're going to die.
ROMERO: The quality of these meal substitutes isn't as good as the real deal. They're expensive, and it's like eating fresh versus canned vegetables. Tim Tucker is the president of the American Beekeeping Federation. He says the expense in providing food and drink to the bees is causing more beekeepers to take their bees out of California and into other states.
TIM TUCKER: Commercial beekeepers are having difficult times keeping bees alive, and they're kind of spread out. They're going to Montana, and they're going to - some to North Dakota.
ROMERO: That raises concerns among farmers who rely on those bees to pollinate the 400-plus crops grown in California's Central Valley. Ryan Jacobsen is CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. He says it's especially important to have them here in the spring, when the region's 900,000-plus acres of almonds bloom.
RYAN JACOBSEN: They're scrambling, trying to figure out as many options as possible to make sure their bees stay healthy and are prepared for next year. And that includes, you know, trying to move maybe to newer areas and trying to plant feed sources.
ROMERO: Jacobsen also notes that this drought is really the second punch to the beekeeping industry in the past 10 years. Each winter, as much as 40 percent of the honeybees in the West disappear due to the unexplained colony collapse disorder. The expense of moving bees and the fear of weakening colonies are why beekeepers like Gene Brandi have taken the risk of not sending their bees out of state.
BRANDI: Bees are like cattle, in the sense that the pasture can be overcrowded. And even though we have less forage than normal, it's still more forage than other parts of the state.
ROMERO: And just like every other farmer in the region, Brandi and his beekeeping counterparts say rain and snow are the only true answer in reviving the California beekeeping industry. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno.
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