Lovely day at the office

Lovely day at the office: There are few sights in farming more beautiful than an orchard in spring, and thatÂ’s especially true for almonds. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Every spring, just as the swallows return to Capistrano, so do the bees buzz back to Bakersfield. But don't expect to look up in the sky and see a swarm of them making their way west. These bees travel by truck.

And though the place they're visiting is certainly beautiful, trees arranged in graceful allées and topped with billowing white and pale pink clouds of blossoms, this trip is all business.

The almond industry, which has emerged over the last decade as one of the biggest and most profitable in California agriculture, depends on bees for pollination. And so every spring, fully 60% of the commercially kept honeybees in the United States -- more than 1 million hives -- are trucked to California's Central Valley to do their thing.

But what happens when one of the state's fastest-growing businesses depends on workers who are disappearing almost as quickly? That's what California's almond farmers are waiting to find out.

California produces almost 80% of the world's almonds, grossing more than $2 billion in 2007. The state's almond exports are more than twice the value of its wine exports.

While almonds have been growing into an agricultural powerhouse, bee populations have been dwindling. Most recently, plagued by a mysterious condition called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, honeybee colonies across the country have been vanishing, abandoning perfectly good hives. Even after two years, no one yet knows why. Theories are many, but definite answers are few.

And though the source of the disease is a mystery, its potential effects are not -- at least when it comes to almonds. Because it's this simple: Without bees, there are no nuts.

Pretty as they are, if ever there was a plant that seemed designed to resist all efforts at domestication, it is the almond tree. Not only must the flowers be cross-pollinated with another almond variety, but because of the way the flowers are constructed, they rely on bees to do the pollinating. Other crops can be fertilized by birds, other bugs or even wind, but almonds need bees.

Plus, almonds flower for only about three weeks and always early in the spring, when the bees are at their lowest energy, just emerging from their winter rest.

So although most attention is focused on the fall harvest, almond farmer Matt Billings, 36, says it's this short period of time in the spring that makes or breaks his year. "If we don't have bees or if it rains or blows or anything else, we've got nothing else to do for the rest of the summer," he says. "The whole crop is determined in this three-week window."

More almond trees

EARLY one mid-February morning in Billings' orchards, with the valley fog still cool and clinging, the beehives look like board boxes that have been discarded on the dirt shoulders between the road and the trees. A second-generation almond farmer from Bakersfield, Billings and his father D ("no period, just D") farm about 1,000 acres of almond trees scattered along 30 miles of Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Earlimart.

There are few sights in farming more beautiful than an orchard in spring, and that's especially true for almonds. "It kind of looks like a street in Paris, doesn't it?" asks Billings, and it kind of does.

Up and down the valley, from south of Bakersfield to north of Modesto, there are similar orchards, covering more than a half-million acres total.

Because almonds have been almost uniformly profitable for more than a decade, the acreage devoted to the crop has increased by almost a third since 1997 and is projected to increase by more than 20% over the next five years.

If that happens, it's estimated that pollination will require the services of a whopping 70% of all the commercially kept bees in the U.S.

And that's when what has been mainly an expensive inconvenience could turn into something more. Because while almond trees are being planted, honeybees are vanishing.

The cause of CCD determinedly resists solution. The condition is as fickle as fate. One beekeeper might lose almost all of his hives while his neighbor, who follows exactly the same practices, escapes unscathed.

"Whatever this is, it's not playing any favorites," says Eric Mussen of UC Davis, one of the leading apiculture experts in the United States. "Pretty much everywhere it's been, it's clobbered some people and not affected quite a few others."