Some of Tony Tsymbal's bees got in a practice flight while the weather still was sunny last week.
They emerged from their wooden boxes at an almond orchard west of Crows Landing and searched for blossoms to pollinate.
Few buds had opened, and a series of storms was headed in, so the bees will have to wait at least a few more days before getting to work in earnest.
Once they do, it will be a sight to behold.
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"When it's blooming, you go to every tree and see hundreds of bees," said Alex Semchishin, who is Tsymbal's son-in-law and part of his Turlock-based beekeeping business.
Pollination by honeybees from mid-February to mid-March is a crucial step in growing almonds. If not for the insects spreading the pollen that fertilizes the flowers, the trees would not produce the nuts that end up in snack bags, cereal boxes and baked goods.
Two things this year worry beekeepers and the almond growers who rent their colonies.
One is the weather. Bees don't like to fly when it's raining, but that's the forecast for much of this week.
The second is the reduction in bee numbers in the past few years because of what scientists call colony collapse disorder. For reasons still unknown, many of the nation's beekeepers have seen some or most of their bees die over the past few winters.
Researchers are looking at several possible causes, including poor nutrition, pesticides, viruses and mites that invade the hives.
The percentage loss this year is not yet known, said Chris Heintz, who manages pollination research for the Almond Board of California, based in Modesto.
Parceling out the colonies
Some growers are dealing with the bee shortage by stretching what colonies they have. Instead of the standard two per acre, for example, they might use 1.75.
This could work if the mild weather returns and the bees can get in plenty of "flight hours," Heintz said.
Bees can range far on nice days, even pollinating orchards beyond the ones where they were placed, said Eric Mussen, a researcher at the University of California at Davis.
He said the bee shortage resulted in part from colony collapse disorder and in part from some out-of-state beekeepers not getting a high enough price to justify long-distance trucking.
A poor 2010 pollination would hamper the almond industry's effort to meet growing demand around the world. Last year's harvest of 1.31 billion pounds in California was down 17 percent from the record amount in 2008, so inventories need to be rebuilt.
Dave Phippen, an almond grower and processor near Ripon, said a shortage could raise the price of the nuts too much, driving off buyers.
Prices paid to growers have risen past $2 per pound, about double the depressed level of a year ago. Phippen said the current rates are fair to growers and buyers, and another record crop would serve the industry well.
Phippen, a past chairman of the Almond Board, said he did not have trouble finding bee colonies to rent, although his Texas-based supplier had to find replacements for bees lost to the collapse.
Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in the Los Banos area, said some growers are scrambling to get the colonies delivered to their orchards.
Many colonies are renting for $150 to $160 apiece, up from $125 to $140 last year, he said. They typically stay in the orchards a couple of weeks, then move to cherries, apples and other crops around the state and nation.
How much is the rent?
The rent can be less if the colonies are ordered well in advance or if a beekeeper can supply just a few large growers, reducing trucking costs.
Brandi, legislative chairman for the California State Beekeeper Association, agreed that the weather will play a key role in how many of the blossoms are pollinated.
"Stormy weather keeps the bees in, regardless of how many colonies you've got in the orchard," he said.
Despite the bee collapse, the state has managed to produce large almond crops in most of the past few years. Experts attribute this in part to mild weather during pollination, but they say the run of good luck could end.
Tsymbal, who has been a beekeeper for 17 years, is doing his part. He brought 800 colonies to the large farm near Crows Landing over the past two weeks, timing them for when each almond variety blooms.
Tens of thousands of bees live in each of the boxes, which look like file cabinets made from rough lumber. He and Semchishin haul them on a flatbed truck and unload them with a forklift.
The bloom means long workdays for Tsymbal, an immigrant from Ukraine who also makes honey and mead, a honey-based wine.
And it means more than a few stings from the bees he does his best to nurture.
"It's not so much fun when they're stinging you, sometimes 20 or more times a day," he said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.