Almond bloom comes nearly all at once in California — a flush of delicate pale blooms that unfold around Valentine's Day.
And beekeeper Bret Adee is hustling to get his hives ready, working through them on a Central Valley ranch before placing them in orchards.
He deftly tap-taps open a hive. "We're gonna open this up, and you're going to see a whole lot of bees here," Adee says.
Under the lid, the exposed sleepy occupants hum away. He uses a handheld smoker to keep them calm and huddled around their queen.
This third-generation beekeeper works night and day with a crew of more than 35. Adee has been busy staging more than 100 semi truckloads of his honey bee hives in almond orchards over a 200 mile swath of the Central Valley.
When temperatures rise and the blooms open, his bees wake up and go to work. It's his hives' first yearly stop on a 6,500-mile tour across the nation.
But this almond bloom, Adee's scrambling more than usual.
Adee lost more than half of his hives over the winter — 50,000. And he's not alone.
"You know, in September, I thought we had the most awesome bees ever," Adee says. "The bees looked incredibly good."
Like Adee, many beekeepers across the U.S. have lost half their hives — they call one with no live bees inside a "deadout." Some beekeepers lost as many as 80 percent. That's unusual. And many of the hives that did survive aren't strong in numbers.
For decades Adee says if he lost 5 percent he really got nervous. Now a 40 percent loss every few years is more common, he says. But this many lost hives across the country is concerning.
California almond orchards have grown so much over the past 10 years, the bloom requires nearly every commercial hive available in the United States.
Almonds have grown from 765,000 acres to 1.33 million acres in the last decade. Bees travel from as far as Florida and New York to do the job. Without these hives, there is no harvest.
Almond bloom is just as important to the beekeepers. It's a chance to make nearly half their yearly income, and a place for the bees to work and grow early in the spring while healing up from winter.
This year, many beekeepers have had to tell their orchardists that they won't have enough bees this year to cover their entire contracts. And some orchardists are desperately calling beekeepers. Some report pollination prices going up.
Experts say honey bees are dealing with many stressors: chemicals, loss of wildflowers, climate change, nutrition and viruses. But this year, a special problem might have taken down the honey bees more than usual.
A tiny parasite called the varroa mite sucks at the bee's body, causing big problems.
"It's a very lethal parasite on honey bees," Sagili says. "It causes significant damage not only to the bee, but to the entire colony. A colony might be decimated in months if this varroa mite isn't taken care of."
He says unusually early and warm spring weather last year made the bees start rearing baby bees early. That gave varroa mites a chance to breed and multiply too.
Varroa mothers crawl into the cells of baby bees and hide there until the bees close the cell up with wax. Then they lay an egg and rear their young on the baby bee.
When the almond blooms fade, beekeepers will truck their hives across America — from the Northwest and Dakotas to the South and Maine, chasing spring.
In Eric Olson's foggy and frosty Washington state cherry orchard, bloom is still a while off. His crew is busy pruning away the wood that would block light to the fresh fruit.
He's helps manage one of the largest beekeeping businesses in the Northwest.
He says their hives experienced a dramatic loss this year. But it's not as bad a when he lost about 65 percent of them.
"That's when I cried," says Olson, who served 20 years in the Air Force. "I was a pilot and I spent my time in combat situations. Never in my life was I as low as when we lost 65 percent of those bees."
Still, spokespeople for the almond industry are saying it's all fine.
"Orchard growers who have long-standing relationships with beekeepers are not experiencing problems," says Bob Curtis, a consultant for the Almond Board of California. "Folks that are having trouble are the ones that don't make the contracts in the fall with beekeepers."
If Northwest growers line up beekeepers early, Olson says he expects there will be enough bees for the region's smaller fruit tree bloom. Still, he's worried for his orchardist friends.
"If I can't get bees in my cherries I'm in trouble," Olson says. "I don't have a crop. What do I do? I don't know."
Surveys later this spring will give a better idea of nationwide bee losses, but that might be too late for orchardists at the end of the pollination line.
This story comes to us from the Northwest News Network.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.