MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Beekeepers and researchers say this is already the worst winter for honeybees in at least a decade. Here's more from Northwest News Network's Anna King.
ANNA KING, BYLINE: Eric Olson says there's nothing so sad as prying open a honeybee hive that doesn't buzz.
ERIC OLSON: Just devastating, devastating.
KING: He's an orchardist in Washington state. He grows cherries and pears. He also used to be a large-scale commercial beekeeper. And of all the highs and lows of that business, the time he opened box after box of dead bees was the worst. Eventually, he had to borrow a million dollars to rebuild his hives, but looking at the lifeless bees, he didn't know that yet. He just knew he was in deep trouble.
OLSON: That's when I cried. And that's when I was really low. But I spent 20 years in the Air Force. I was a pilot. I spent my time in combat situations. Never in my life was I as low as I was the year that we lost 65 percent of those bees.
KING: This year, many U.S. beekeepers have lost more than half their bees. Some have lost 80 percent of their hives. That's unusual, even in an age where 40 percent losses over the winter have become more common. People are debating what's causing it. Stressors on bees include chemicals, loss of wildflowers, climate change, nutrition and viruses. Olson says a big problem this year is a population explosion of mites.
OLSON: Killing a bug on a bug without hurting the main bug is really tough.
KING: There's no foolproof way to do it. The mites bite on the belly of bees, raise their babies on young bees and spread viruses. They're called varroa.
RAMESH SAGILI: It's a very lethal parasite.
KING: Ramesh Sagili is a bee expert with Oregon State University. He predicted this year's big bee losses.
SAGILI: We were worried when I saw the weather pattern and it wasn't raining much. And so we were concerned that this year the mites will have an upper hand.
KING: Bees multiplied faster under those conditions, but so did the mites. And right now, the industry that needs the bees the most - almond orchards in California's Central Valley. It's the largest pollination job in the entire country, more than a million acres flush with pale blooms right around Valentine's Day. Hives even truck in from New York and Florida. Brett Adee is in California with more than 120 semi-truck loads of bees.
BRETT ADEE: There are guys that are so desperate to have these, they've told the beekeepers just bring me anything.
KING: Almond growers have been calling beekeepers in search of extra hives, even sparsely populated ones that won't pollinate well.
ADEE: This is where it becomes very challenging and problematic.
KING: Spokespeople for the almond industry are saying it's fine, but beekeepers are fielding calls from growers they never hear from who are desperate this year. Adee lost more than half his bees this winter - 50,000 hives. He knows by now that building his hives back up if, he can do it, will take years.
ADEE: It used to just tear me up in a complete heartbreak, but I guess if you're going to be a commercial beekeeper, you almost have to get used to death now.
KING: After almond bloom, beekeepers will truck their hives across America from the Northwest and Dakotas to the South and Maine, chasing spring.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEES BUZZING)
KING: For NPR News, I'm Anna King.
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