Going Bee-Less - Trials of Self-Pollinating Almond Trees Begin in California

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Pink blossoms on an almond tree.

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What happens as bee numbers decline and there aren't enough to pollinate all the crops grown in California? One solution is to make the plants self-pollinating. And that's just what scientists and farmers are testing out with almond orchards in California.

Almonds are the top California food export and the nation's sixth largest export. Over 90 countries import almonds from California, and that means growers are increasingly concerned about how they're going to get their trees pollinated without bees. A new variety of self-pollinating trees has been created, and results of how its doing are just starting to trickle in.

According to Physorg, a self-pollinating tree variety has been in development for over a decade, and the new tree is going through a field trial by the Almond Board of California, the industry's marketing and research arm. Last year, however, Chowchilla farmer Jim Maxwell planted 40 acres of one new self-pollinating tree variety called Independence, and so far they've been fairing well. Still, it will take a few seasons before we'll know what kind of output they have, especially for a commercial orchard. Because it takes awhile for the trees to mature, it will be about eight years before farmers know if self-pollinating trees stand up in the commercial market compared to those pollinated by bees.

According to Melissa Waage, campaign manager for Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "Eighty percent of the world's almond crop is grown in California, and they're really reliant on healthy bee populations...when there's a shortfall it's more expensive to pollinate or they can't get as many bees as they'd like, and our almond crop is at risk."

Still, self-pollinating trees could save growers a hefty chunk of change in renting bees - which can be as much as a $1 million annual expense for larger growers - and help offset the difficulty in getting bees at all as colony collapse disorder takes its toll. Still, the helpful insects will stay in demand for the forseeable future.

"I think you will see a natural gravitation to these new trees," said Roger Everett, a Tulare County beekeeper and president of the California State Beekeepers Association. "But ... some growers won't change because they know bees improve their yields, and they won't want to stop."