Falling honeybee populations could take a major bite out of California's vaunted almond and fruit production this year, officials are warning.
Farmers in rural Solano County and around the state are being forced to begin exploring alternatives to beehives after the still-unexplained crash of honeybee populations in 2006 and are just beginning to make progress.
But there may not be enough bees around this year to satisfy growers' pollination needs, agriculture officials are warning.
"It's tenuous now; we've got fewer bees," Bob Curtis of the Almond Board of California told The Recorder newspaper in Vacaville.
"If something goes wrong with the weather, some growers could be in trouble," he said.
That trouble could manifest in sharply reduced harvests of some of California's most valued crops, translating into higher prices for consumers and reduced incomes for growers and farmworkers.
UC Davis Apiculturist Eric Mussen acknowledged there might not be enough honeybees to pollinate the state's 800,000 acres of almond trees.
As a result, scientists have begun exploring ways to make honeybees more resistant to whatever is ailing them, whether the cause is pesticides, pests, something else or all of the above.
California's almond board, which represents more than 6,000 growers, already has spent $1.4 million researching bee health and on finding alternatives should that prove necessary, Curtis said.
Curtis said resarchers are working on developing a self-compatible" almond tree that can transfer pollen among its own flowers, reducing the need for bees to do the work, and the group has begun advising members to plant forage to help bees before and after pollination season.
Solano Agricultural Commissioner Jim Allan said it was too early in the year to predict whether the area's honeybees population would be sufficient in 2013.
But Allan said high almond and fruit prices has meant an increase in the number and size of orchards, putting even more pressure on the limited supply of honeybees for pollination.
"We're seeing more orchards than ever before and they absolutely need the bees for pollinating," Allan said.
Phil Hofland, owner of Solano County-based Noble Apiaries of Dixon, which raises and sells bees, said the increasing price of almonds was driving the planting of more orchards and driving up the price of beehives.
Hofland told newspaper that his company was working with researchers to develop strains of bees that were more disease and pest resistant.
Hofland also said state regulations were inhibiting the importaton of bees from other states that could help alleviate the shortage and keep bee prices down.