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Know the West

Bees don't grow on trees

  Honeybees are in trouble, and so are the farmers who rely on them to pollinate an estimated one-third of the human diet — everything from almond and fruit trees to cantaloupes and cucumbers.

Tom Theobald, who owns Niwot Honey Farm outside Boulder, Colo., says 30 percent of his bees died this year. Other beekeepers say they have lost up to 90 percent.

Although the exact causes remain unclear, the disease-carrying, parasitic varroa mite is the prime suspect, along with the use of pesticides. "Spraying has been a problem since the late ’70s," says Paul Hendricks, owner of Colorado Sunshine Honey Company (HCN, 1/20/97: Bees under siege).

Beekeeping has become an increasingly unstable business, as honey prices plummet from a foreign flooding of the market, and the honeybees die off in larger and larger numbers. "I don’t know if I can make it anymore," says Theobald, who has raised bees for more than 30 years.

In the last 50 years, the number of managed bee colonies in the U.S. dropped from 6 million to around 2 million, says Theobald.

Beekeepers are lobbying for increased enforcement of pesticide regulations and better land management, while scientists are working on more effective miticides.

California’s almond farmers — who produce the state’s largest agricultural export — could see the greatest losses this year. The trees, which bloom at the end of February, require 1.1 million bee hives for pollination. Prices for hive rental have doubled as the date draws near. Without the bees, says Hendricks, "all they’ve got is a fancy shade tree."