By Don Teague Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/27/2005 8:11:04 PM ET 2005-04-28T00:11:04

In Central California, almond grower Paul Betancourt is facing potential disaster. The evidence is scattered everywhere.

"These are blooms that didn't make it last month," says Betancourt.

His 125-acre almond crop is in serious trouble. The blooms that should become almonds are instead shriveling up, because the bees that are supposed to pollinate them have vanished.

"They are a critical part of our production," says Betancourt. "If the bees don't fly during bloom season we are toast, absolutely."

It's a huge problem caused by tiny parasites. The varroa mite — which kills bees by feeding on their blood — wiped out an astonishing 50 percent of honey bees in the U.S. in less than a year. It's a natural disaster that could devastate $10 billion worth of U.S. crops — from strawberries to melons.

"The impact potential at our tables is that if honeybees cease to exist today, one-third of the food you and I eat would simply disappear," says Jerry Hayes, the chief apiarian inspector at the Florida Department Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Researchers say the parasites latch onto developing bees called the brood while still in the hive. They can wipe out an entire colony in just a few months. Pesticides used to work against varroa mites, but now the mites have become resistant.

So in an effort to avert an agricultural crisis, scientists have turned to selective breeding. At the University of Florida, they're creating new colonies of bees that have somehow learned to fight back.

"They actually will pull the brood out [and] identify the brood that is infected with mites," says Dr. H. Glen Hall, an entomologist at the university. "They open the cell, they pull the brood out and discard it along with the mites."

Still, it will take years to develop enough mite-resistant bee colonies to make a difference. In the meantime, farmers are paying a premium to import bees by the millions. But beekeepers say they soon won't have enough healthy bees to sell.

"I'd say 30-40 percent a year of my bees are dying," says beekeeper David Mendes at Headwaters Farm.

As the bees die, so too do the hopes of farmers, who are quickly running out of options.

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