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New farming buzz: wild bees

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Each year for as long as he can remember, Rick Rominger and his father before him have rented honeybees to pollinate the crops on their sunbaked farm near Davis, Calif. When the days get long they pay a beekeeper to truck hives into their fields. For a few weeks the honeybees fan out to collect pollen and nectar and in the process they turn sunflowers into sunflower seeds and bean flowers into beans.

Occasionally, the honeybees misbehave and abscond to the local town, bringing back the wrong kind of pollen for Mr. Rominger's hybrids. But for the most part the relationship between honeybee and farmer has stood the test of time.

Some bee experts say that could be about to change. The number of honeybee colonies in the United States is down by almost two-thirds over a 50-year period. Two species of bloodsucking mites are chewing their way through honeybee colonies nationwide, wreaking havoc on the way. Chinese competition is driving down the price of honey.

Because of these problems, beekeeping no longer earns much. Some operators are hanging up their veils and putting away their smokers.

This means the cost of pollination is rising and occasionally there are honeybee shortages. With 1 out of every 3 bites of food the result of pollination, bee specialists are looking for alternative ways to do the job.

Princeton University researcher Claire Kremen is a champion of native bees - the wild, distant cousins of the honeybee. Dr. Kremen says farmers have been relying too heavily on honeybees, and that other species of bee such as bumblebees, mason bees, carpenter bees, and sweat bees can do a much better job of pollination.

"I kind of think of wild bees as being our insurance policy," Kremen says, adding that there are 1,500 species in California alone.

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