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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Martin James a beekeeper and inspector, works with his hives in Fielding, Utah, in May 2007.

Honeybee keepers in the Beehive State are experiencing heavy losses this spring, with bees in entire hives dying — jeopardizing crops that rely on bees for pollination, from almonds to cotton to strawberries.

State agriculture and food specialists believe the problem may be Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that has been under the microscopes at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the last two years and has caused $150 million in losses for U.S. beekeepers.

The disorder occurs when female worker bees cease to return to their hives with honey and pollen to feed the queen and male drones. With strong homing instincts, the worker bees are presumed dead if they don't return to the hive, and the queen and drones eventually die, too, without food. The USDA hasn't pinpointed the root cause of the disorder, but scientists believe it is the result of a combination of pesticides, stress due to migratory beekeeping and pathogens.

In Utah, some beekeepers are reporting losses of 30 percent, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food spokesman Larry Lewis said.

"This year is more than we've had in the past," Lewis said.

Danielle Downey, a plant industry compliance specialist with the department, said the Utah bee deaths seem to mirror the losses across the nation.

"Beekeepers do the same thing year after year, and when they see such a heavy loss, it would indicate there's something new going on," she said.

Like many of Utah's 300 registered beekeepers, Roger Stephenson of Delta takes his bees to California in early spring and charges farmers $140 for a three to four week period to use his bees to pollinate crops.

"Normally, we figure about a 15 percent loss each year," because of mites, infertile queens and other conditions, Stephenson said. This year, the loss was twice that for Stephenson.

Stephenson took 1,700 hives to Needles, Calif., several weeks before the almond crop was pollinated the first week of February. From roughly the months of October to January, beekeepers do not check on the hives, because it is not good for the bees to be disturbed during winter. After arriving in California, Stephenson checked on the bees and discovered he lost 500 hives, or 30 percent.

Stephenson figures he lost about $28,000 in revenue from lost hives, plus additional revenue he could have earned in Delta from the bees' honey production. Stephenson Honey Co. sells honey primarily wholesale to honey packers.

For Wilford Baird, a part-time beekeeper in Provo, this year's loss wasn't nearly as severe as last year, when he lost 70 percent of his hives in Fresno, Calif., about $22,000 in lost revenue.

"Then we had to turn around and buy $17,0000 of packaged bees," he said.

Honeybees are purchased by the pound. Colony Collapse Disorder, combined with other inflationary pressures such as increased fuel prices, pushed up the price of bees from $45 a pound to $60.

"We've had some other (hard) times," said Baird, who has kept honeybees for the past five decades. "We've had mite problems 10, 12 years ago, and that was as bad a loss as this. But this is like the second major loss in 50 years."

While vegetables and fruits used to be seasonal delicacies, Americans are now used to eating strawberries in the fall and pears in the summer. That demand has increased the need for honeybees in California, which imports about 1 million honeybee hives a year from throughout the United States, said Rosalind James, research leader for the USDA Bee Biology and Systemics Research Laboratory at Utah State University.

The price to rent bees has increased with demand. In 2003, it cost $50 a hive. Now it's closer to $150.

"Food prices have gone up a lot this year," she said. "How much is due to bees, it's hard to say."

However, if more bees die off, produce will be more expensive. If the price gets too high, then retailers will increase imports from Mexico and Chile, she said.

About one-third of the crops people eat are pollinated by bees. Grains and corn are wind pollinated, James said.

The cause of Colony Collapse Disorder hasn't been isolated to any one pathogen. Complicating the diagnosis is the fact that bees are moved around the country a lot more than they used to be, James said. "It's probably a combination — pesticides, pathogens and how bees are managed."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com