FORBES - Thousands of honey bees leave a cluster of wooden boxes and rush towards a vast grove of almond trees bursting with white flowers. It’s sweet-smelling springtime in California’s Central Valley, and the bees are about to cross-pollinate one of the country’s top cash crops.
The bee colony, and the orchard, are owned by America’s richest farmers, billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick. They run the privately held agriculture giant Wonderful Co., with $5 billion in annual sales from products such as Halos, Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful and seedless lemons. Wonderful’s roughly 80,000 hives, with about 4.5 billion bees, make it one of America’s largest beekeepers. There are just five or so companies that control the majority of the colonies in the U.S., and their bees are responsible for pollinating roughly one-third of the food Americans eat every year, from apples and onions to strawberries and carrots. Beef producers need bees, too, as the colonies pollinate feed ingredients like alfalfa seed and soybeans. Demand is so high for bees — with the supply suffering from annual die-offs — that Wonderful leases its pollinators to farmers as far away as Maine.
The tension between falling bee supply and rising demand has been driving up prices for foods like berries, says Barbara Bar-Imhoof of the Center for Integrative Bee Research at the University of California, Riverside. “Pollination needs to be factored in for the prices of products,” she says. “If we can keep pollination assured and keep the bees healthy, that will help key prices stay within a reasonable frame, hopefully.”