- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2011

DEL REY, Calif. — Dozens of farmers in California and other states have started replacing some of their crops with flowers and shrubs that are enticing to bees, hoping to lower their pollination costs and restore a bee population devastated in the past few years.

On an October morning, peach farmer Mas Masumoto planted more than 3 acres of wild rose, aster, sage, manzanita and other shrubs and trees in a former grape field near Fresno, Calif.

To the north near Modesto, Calif., David Moreland was preparing to plant wildflower seeds and flowering shrubs in a ravine along his 400-acre almond orchard.

Their goal is to attract and sustain native bees and strengthen dwindling honeybee populations, joining in an effort organized by the Xerces Society, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit group.

“For bees to thrive, they need a diverse diet, so we’re trying to bring more pollen diversity to farms, more plants to be part of the bees’ buffet,” said Mace Vaughan, the group’s pollinator program director. “This isn’t a panacea to pollination woes. This is part of the solution overall.”

The effort comes as honeybees - maintained by beekeepers - and native, or wild, bees are perishing in great numbers. Bees are essential pollinators of about one-third of the United States’ food supply, and they’re especially important in California, the nation’s top producer of fruits and vegetables.

The die-off is blamed on colony collapse disorder, in which all the adult honey bees in a colony suddenly die. The disorder has destroyed honeybee colonies at a rate of about 30 percent per year since it was recognized in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Before that, about 15 percent of colonies died per year from a variety of pests and diseases.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes the disorder, but they suspect a combination of stressors, including pesticides, mites and parasites, and lack of proper nutrition.

The problem is especially dire in California, where large farms often grow single crops that rely on pollination but don’t offer bees a varied diet.

Almond orchards, which have grown dramatically in recent years, have some of the worst problems. Two-thirds of the nation’s honeybees are now trucked to the state during winter for almond bloom, but the arriving bees don’t have enough forage.

Beekeepers feed bees with supplements, including corn syrup, weakening bees and increasing costs. Prices for renting bee colonies have more than tripled in the past decade, from $43 per colony in 2000 to $150 per colony in 2010. Almond orchards require about two colonies per acre.

Getting farmers to plant bee habitat is key, Mr. Vaughan said, because bees with nutritionally sound diets are better able to fend off diseases and other problems.

Bee habitat also can reduce a farmer’s costs and alleviate the stress on honeybees.

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