Baffling case of the hives

As more and more growers plant almonds, a mysterious force is killing off the bees needed for pollination

EMPTY HIVES<br> Durham-area beekeeper Victor Bordin stands next to a stack of empty hives. He and his brother, who own Bordin Bees, have lost 35 percent of their hives in just the past year.

Durham-area beekeeper Victor Bordin stands next to a stack of empty hives. He and his brother, who own Bordin Bees, have lost 35 percent of their hives in just the past year.

Photo By Joe Krulder

Bees are big:
Bees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States. It’s estimated that every third bite of food we consume requires pollination from a honeybee.

A cold wind snapped at a mountain of empty bee hives, more than 500 of them stacked on the flatlands of the Bordin Ranch just west of Durham. Richard Bordin waved his hand at them on the way to the barn but didn’t look their way.

“I’ve been doing this since 1956,” he said. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

“It” is the bee business. Bordin and his brother, Victor Bordin, are the owners of Bordin Bees, one of Butte County’s largest beekeepers. “The worst” refers to what’s been happening to his and others’ bees. They’ve been dying at unprecedented rates, and nobody knows why.

“I think it’s a ‘perfect storm,’ “ Bordin postulated, “a bunch of little things—a little of this, a little of that, something from over here. My brother and I have lost about 35 percent of our hives this year. Damn near four in 10 hives.”

Federal data from 2005 shows that the number of bee colonies is now below that of 1939, the first year in which such records were kept.

Experts are stymied. Everything attempted over the past two decades has failed to stop bee populations from falling. And because bees are an essential part of so many farming operations, the potential impact on California’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry is frightening.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as bee colonies are declining, the demand for them is skyrocketing. That’s mostly because, with the demand and prices for almonds going steadily up, more and more farmers are converting their fields to the nut crop.

In 1986, 416,000 acres in the state were planted in almonds. By 2006, the number had jumped to 580,000 acres, a 39 percent increase. What’s more, with growers getting record prices ($3 a pound for certain hulled varieties in 2005), the state Department of Food and Agriculture expects almond plantings to increase another 29 percent in just the next three years—to 750,000 acres.

There are so many almond trees in California that 70 percent of the country’s bees—about 10 billion of them—are currently in the state for the February-to-March pollination season.

It doesn’t help that the window of opportunity to pollinate an almond blossom is only 12 hours.

“When that blossom pops open, a bee has only 12 hours to find it and pollinate it,” said Durham-area almond grower Terry Huitt. “Luckily, not all the blossoms on an almond tree pop open at once. But, maybe it’s this global warming. Seems to me these blossoms open earlier than they used to.”

Bee populations are plummeting all across the United States, not just in California. Commercial honeybee populations have fallen more than 27 percent in the past 20 years. But the die-offs appear to be ramping up.

“I had over 270 hives parked in an orchard west of I-5 this last winter,” explained beekeeper Bob Siefert, of Bear River Honey Co. “Only 40 hives pulled through. Something’s wrong.”

Theories abound. Mites are considered the primary culprit. But everything from “bee flu” to “bee dysentery” is tossed out as an idea, though none has been proven. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, clearly concerned, came up with the term “colony collapse disorder” to describe what’s happening now: Bees are leaving the hives and simply not coming back.

CLEANING HOUSE<br /> A worker at Bordin Bees sterilizes hives in an effort to prevent bees from getting sick and dying.

Photo By Joe Krulder

“It’s eerie,” Victor Bordin said. “In the past when a hive died, nearby hives would jump in, scavenge the honey—nature’s way of cleaning up. But now we are finding hives empty of bees, no corpses, yet the honey remains. Even though several hives are nearby, they all stay clear of the empty, dead one.”

The Bordins are spending money, throwing everything they can think of into the effort to keep their bees healthy.

During a recent day, Victor Bordin lifted the lid on a hive in a nearby orchard. Bees buzzed around a yellow brick of soy protein mixed with bee pollen and honey that looked curiously like an Abba-Zaba bar. It was cold, and the bees look attentive but lackadaisical and weak. Bordin opened the hive next door. The soy protein brick was gone, eaten up, and the bees were roiling in their box to stay warm. All looked healthy.

“Just can’t figure it out,” Bordin said. “Why is one healthy, but not the next?”

Richard Bordin, in the barn, was overseeing a wash campaign. “We’re cleaning out all the hives, making combs anew. I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

Cold weather stresses bees, as does trucking them in, which is what it takes to get the estimated $2 billion almond crop in California pollinated. Bees have come from as far away as Florida for this year’s pollination season.

“This year we’ve only had about a quarter of the hours,” Durham orchard owner Ed McLaughlin explained. In other words, the weather cooperated only 25 percent of the time. Bees won’t fly at temperatures under 55 degrees, so most days this year—at least until recently—they stayed in the hive.

Three years ago almond farmers rented bee hives for $60. “Now it’s anywhere from $125 to $155 or more, depending on the health of the hive,” said McLaughlin, “and I have to look at each hive. Not all hives are strong. You can tell by just looking at them. And you need about two hives per acre in order to get the job done.”

McLaughlin and his partners have 450 acres; pollinating them will cost about $30,000.

“What I’ve seen is what other beekeepers in the area are seeing,” Siefert said: “about a third of our hives this year gone, completely dead.”

“When we started in the 1950s,” Richard Bordin said, “working bees were easy. Hardly lost a hive. Then, in the ‘70s, we began seeing losses around 10 percent; the ‘90s, 20 percent. It’s just been getting worse.”

But in the 1970s bees stopped being a backyard hobby. Bees are now kept on industrial scales, and they follow the pollination schedules up and down and sideways throughout the country via 18-wheelers. The Bordins end their pollination season in Nevada. Siefert’s bees head to Oregon after the almond season is over.

The odd thing is that some hives do fine, while others die off.

“I had about 27 hives stacked by oak trees near Chico,” said Siefert, “and [I’ll] be darned if they all didn’t make it [through the winter].”

Was it lack of pesticides? The serenity of oak trees? Why are some bees dying and others living?

No one has answers. But what is certain is that if bee colonies continue to falter, farmers in this state will be hard-pressed to pollinate their crops, which means big trouble ahead.