Texas growers claim title to the nation’s largest cotton-producing state yet beekeepers and California almond growers claim the throne each spring for the largest pollination event on Earth.

The 2011 California almond bloom is just weeks away. An estimated 1.3 million honey bee colonies nestled in almond orchards are primed to pollinate an estimated 740,000-plus acres of bearing tree blooms. It is an annual rite and picturesque sight in California agriculture and a major precursor to the success or failure of the almond crop.

To illustrate the importance of bee availability for almond pollination, Christi Heintz, Almond Board of California (ABC) staff liaison to the group’s Bee Task Force and executive director of Project Apis m., showed a Southwest Airlines napkin during a pollination seminar at the 2010 Almond Industry Conference held in Modesto, Calif. in December.

The napkin illustrated the cross-country routes and cities served by Southwest planes. The map symbolically stood for the wide range of U.S. locations where honey bee colonies are located and then moved cross country to California for the annual almond bloom.

“One-half to two thirds of the honeybee colonies in the U.S. come to California to pollinate the almond crop,” Heintz noted. “It is the biggest pollination event in the world. It’s one of the most interesting examples of business synergism between the grower and the beekeeper.”

Honey bee health captured the headlines five years ago when bees in mass went AWOL around the world; flying away from colonies only never to return. Billions of bees died in the phenomenon later labeled Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Wireless cell phone transmissions and farm pesticides are among the early items blamed for the massive bee die off. Bee researchers have not unearthed a single science-based cause for CCD but studies continue in earnest. The best probability, some scientists agree, could be a combination of factors including the lack of forage, mites, pesticides, and others.

Reduced foraging ability is a growing reality in California due to increasing urban development, Heintz says. California’s population grew from 23 million in 1980 to 37 million in 2010 while farm acreage fell from 32 million acres to 23 million acres during the same time period. Fewer rural areas transcend to less foraging opportunities for bees before and after the almond bloom.

Eric Mussen, University of California, Davis Extension apiculturist, chimed in on the pollination discussion. He said the U.S. honey bee population peaked after World War II. About 5.4 million honey bee colonies (hives) existed in 1959. The number fell to 2.4 million colonies in 2009. A key reason for the decline, said Mussen, was a double whammy of mite infestations.

“The dip down began when tracheal mites got into our bees,” Mussen said.

From 1984 to 1989 tracheal mites spread across the country and took out about 50 percent of beekeeper’s bees. Then the varroa mite spread across the country (1997 to 2002) wiping out about half of the colonies. Beekeepers have been busily building the colonies back up.

Despite the mites and CCD, beekeepers today have about 2.4 million colonies, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service data on beekeepers that produce honey and report the production. The actual colony number is much higher than that, Mussen suggests.

The demand for honey bee colonies is larger than ever before. Bees are necessary to pollinate almond blossoms, and other crops including blueberries, cherries, and alfalfa seed. Bearing almond acreage in California has increased from 510,000 acres a decade ago to the current 740,000 acre level. Current non-bearing acreage is about 60,000 acres.

Simply put, increasing almond acreage requires more bees.