MURTAUGH • Semi-trucks full of the workers are headed to labor in the almond orchards of California. Each migrant worker has two pairs of wings, antennae and a stinger.
These are Italian honey bees.
Honey bees are not native to North America, said beekeeper Israel Bravo. Early settlers brought the honey bee from Europe to pollinate crops. The honey produced by the bees is a bonus byproduct. Each bee produces only a thimble full of honey in its lifetime.
Since November, millions of Italian bees from South Dakota have been chilling in a rented warehouse near Murtaugh. The time is right, Bravo said, to send them to pollinate California’s almond crop.
“We fattened them up by feeding them sugar-water before going into the winter,” Bravo said.
Bravo credits everything he knows about bees to his mentor, third-generation beekeeper Richard Barlow of Heyburn. By day, Bravo works for Belliston Brothers Apiaries out of Burley. After work, Bravo puts in some time at Barlow’s bee operation.
Bravo, Barlow and other Belliston employees Thursday loaded pallets full of bee boxes onto four westbound trucks, 456 boxes per truck. Each box holds one colony of 30,000 bees and one queen.
He sets the temperature inside the wintering warehouse at 40 degrees to keep the bees inactive, but as the temperature started to rise Thursday, so did some of the bees.
The warehouse is kept dark, Bravo said. Workers wear red-tinted headlamps as they work inside.
Bravo first worked with bees more than 20 years ago as a summer job. “I wanted to do something different than flipping burgers.”
Beekeeping fit the bill, he said.
“There is something very calming about bees, something that feels very right.”
Bravo said he constantly watches nature for cues — especially the bloom cycles of various crops and wildflowers.
“We follow Mother Nature’s lead,” he said.
Without bees, the world’s almond crop, among others, would be decimated. Pollinating California’s almond crop requires 1.4 million colonies of honey bees.
One of every three bites of food that the average person swallows is made possible by bees, Bravo said. Bees’ contribution to agriculture is estimated at $15 billion per year, according to industry reports, making pollination service a lucrative business.
But plunging bee numbers over the past 70 years have resulted in bees being hauled longer distances than ever. The nation’s bee population spiked in the 1940s with about 5 million colonies. Today, only half of that number remains.
A mysterious disorder called colony collapse is partially to blame for the decreased population and is threatening the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations.
Norma Kofoed, business manager of VeeBee Honey in Buhl, said the disorder took out 70 percent of the business’ bees the year before last.
“It was a real disaster,” Kofoed said.
Researchers have studied colony collapse since it was identified seven years ago, but no one factor has been singled out as causing the disorder. The latest suspect is tobacco ringspot virus, a rapidly mutating virus that jumped from tobacco plants to soy plants to bees, says a new study.
“A healthy bee population can take exposure to many things — viruses, pesticides, stress, mites and mold spores,” Kofoed said. “I liken the collapse to stacking a tower of blocks. At some point, that last block is more than the bees can stand.”
Heidi Tubbs, a partner in Tubbs Berry Farms in Twin Falls, agrees.
“There are lots of theories about colony collapse disorder,” she said. “We watch our bees and do the best to take care of them and make sure they are healthy.”