MERCED — When people call in sick, co-workers might try to pick up the slack. Almond growers hope the same is true for the worker bees in their orchards.
The 2013 pollination seems to have gone well despite a shortage of bee colonies for rent to growers.
Credit the mostly mild weather over the past week and a half, ideal for getting bees up into the branches.
"Bees are very industrious creatures, and given the opportunity to fly, they will pollinate the crop," said Christi Heintz, a bee research consultant to the Almond Board of California, based in Modesto.
About two-thirds of the nation's 2 million-plus commercial colonies descend on the Central Valley for almond pollination from mid-February to mid-March.
The bees spread pollen from bloom to bloom, making possible an almond crop that grossed about $1.21 billion in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in 2011.
The bee supply is down perhaps 15 percent from last year, said Darren Cox, a Utah-based beekeeper who services almond orchards.
One key factor was the drought last year in the Great Plains and Midwest, which shriveled many of the flowers that nourish bees in summer.
"It's definitely a shortage," said Dave Doll, a UC Farm Extension scientist in Merced. "Farmers may not have received as many hives as expected or there many not be as many frames per hive."
That came on top of other problems that have been cited by experts in recent years. They include mites, viruses, pesticides and the stress of being trucked long distances.
"There's been a problem with the bees over the past two decades, and we don't really know what's going on," Doll said. "There's been a multitude of things implicated but nobody really knows."
There's colony collapse disorder, in which a higher-than-normal percentage of bees fails to make it through winter, for which no definitive cause has been found.
The shortage has raised the cost of renting bees. Gil Silbernagel, who grows almonds northeast of Waterford, said he paid about $170 per colony this year.
Some growers have seen rents top $200 -- about five times the going rate a decade ago.
The colonies are housed in wooden boxes, typically two to an acre.
"You can go down to one hive per acre, like many growers are doing, and hope for good weather," Cox said.
It's hard to know how a specific area, such as Merced County, is faring at this point, Doll said.
"The growers have a relationship with their beekeeper, and the ones with longstanding relationships probably came out on the better end of things."
On the brighter side, the warm weather's been a hit.
That hope has come true for the early part of the bloom.
One field report from Blue Diamond Growers noted a high temperature of 72 degrees Thursday, with "eight hours of excellent activity" by the bees.
Rain forecast this week likely will reduce the pace, but the bees have logged plenty of flight hours.
The pollination can get done even in wet years, said Jay Cook, who manages Silbernagel's acreage.
He cited 2011, which had a record almond harvest of 2.03 billion pounds despite plenty of rain during the bloom.
Sunny days between the storms are key.
The industry could use another bumper crop to make up for a 2012 harvest, which fell 12 percent short of the projected 2.1 billion pounds.
Global demand continues to grow thanks to marketing efforts that stress the health benefits of almonds.
This has led to an increase in statewide planting, to about 780,000 acres, and to more demand for bees.
Experts are looking at measures for dealing with the bee supply. One is an almond variety that can pollinate itself, reducing the need for pollen to be carried from a nearby tree of a different variety. Another is having wild insects do the work of the rented bees, which are a species that originated in Europe.
"Honeybees cannot replace the service wild bees provide," Lucas Garibaldi, a scientist at the National University of Río Negro in Argentina, told the Los Angeles Times. "Biodiversity in agricultural landscapes matters and can help increase production."
Researchers are looking at whether planting native wildflowers near almond orchards could supplement the food available to bees right before and after the bloom. And there are efforts to increase bee-friendly crops in the Plains and Midwest.
"If they don't have the food sources and they don't have the nutrition, they can run into trouble in winter," Heintz said.
WATCH FOR STOLEN HIVES
A $10,000 reward has been offered in the theft of about 80 bee colonies from an almond farm northeast of Waterford. Grower Gil Silbernagel said entire pallets of bee boxes were taken in mid-February after having been delivered by Utah-based beekeeper Darren Cox. People with information that could lead to an arrest can call (209) 552-2468 or (435) 232-9429.
BY THE NUMBERS
$18 billion: Estimated value of U.S. crops pollinated by honeybees each year
$77.1 million: Estimated gross income to U.S. beekeepers for pollination services in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in 2011
$9.8 million: Estimated 2011 income for honey produced in the north valley
$4.1 million: Estimated 2011 income from beeswax, pollen and live bees
Sources: American Beekeeping Federation; University of California at Davis; county crop reports