A new, improved honeybee diet developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists could provide bees with an early spring jump start as they prepare to pollinate the annual $1 billion California almond crop.

Each year, California almond growers rely on tens of thousands of out-of-state bee colonies that are trucked into the state to pollinate almonds. But during winter in many parts of the United States, honeybees are in a near-hibernating state, because of the cold temperatures and the lack of pollen and nectar, their main sources of food.

To stimulate colonies and prepare them for almond pollination, beekeepers now use patties made of corn syrup, soy flour and brewer's yeast. But placement of the patties is labor intensive and costly, and bees consuming them eventually stop producing worker jelly, a substance vital for feeding the developing bees, called brood.

Entomologist Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, a specialist in honeybee research, and Allen C. Cohen, a pioneer in developing artificial diets for insects, worked with California orchardists last year to develop an improved honeybee diet. DeGrandi-Hoffman leads research at ARS' Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Ariz., while Cohen recently retired from ARS' Biological Control and Mass-Rearing Research Unit in Mississippi State, Miss.

The two scientists developed a recipe for an artificial diet that would give honeybees the whole package of nutrients that they need in an easy-to-feed liquid. The recipe took five months to complete and went through nearly 80 formulations before the right mix was found. It combines the sweetness of nectar and the nutritional punch of pollen in a formula that the domesticated honeybee, Apis mellifera, readily digests and enjoys. Nectar is rich in carbohydrates, and pollen is packed with protein, vitamins, minerals and fats — all essential for bees' development and survival. A machine already used by beekeepers could easily pump the bee food into the hives.