Scientists are realizing that a combination of pesticides, pathogens and poor nutrition probably are the major causes of CCD. Prominent theories suggest the stress of moving from one pesticide-rich monoculture to another makes farmed bees vulnerable to sudden virus outbreaks. On the other hand, a diverse farm sprinkled with various crops and flowers gives all bees — native and honey-making alike — a healthy diet.

Of course, this kind of bee buffet works better on organic farms than massive industrial operations. Nevertheless, the idea to use native pollinators has spread over the last few years from California to farms across the country, all the way to Washington, D.C. Nationwide 60,000 acres of pollinator-specific habitat will be put aside over the next year or two. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service set aside $330,000 from the farm bill for pollination projects in California as well as some of the largest blueberry and cherry operations in Florida, New Hampshire and Oregon.

“Farmers really are stewards of the land. They believe in trying to do things the right way,” says Jessa Guisse, who works with Xerxes to educate and partner with California farmers. She relies heavily on science coming out of UC Davis and Berkeley to help inform farmers.

“The work out at the UC is some of the best work in the country right now,” says Mace Vaughan, who oversees national pollinator work for Xerxes. “They are actually demonstrating the benefits.”

But coming up with specific bee instructions for farmers is hardly straightforward. Differing bee tastes are just the start; they also need someplace to live. Most native bees nest in the ground, while others occupy tubular tunnels, and a few even drill holes in wood. Plus, they may not emerge to start pollinating at the same time of year as honey bees. Farmers wanting to attract native bees have to be careful about plowing their fields and knowing when native bees are likely to become active.

UC Davis’ Williams is working on a way to perhaps pinpoint bee hotspots throughout the state to concentrate efforts. Even so, it may be decades before scientists have a clear understanding of how the diverse tapestry of native bees affects a farm field.

It may be worth it, though. Kremen is still determining the dollar value of native bees, but she says even with minimal effort, farmers may already be getting 25 to 30 percent of their pollination for free from bees they have never heard of. That likely translates to billions of dollars even before the first honey bee touches down. And increasingly farmers are starting to see a potential savior in their own back yard.

“Nothing beats taking a farmer out to squeeze squash flowers (in their fields) and finding squash bees,” says Vaughan, who often leads farm bug-finding tours. “And the farmer suddenly says, ‘I get it.’”