After years of struggling to keep their bees alive, California bee keepers are seeing some signs of improvement. But the need for bees in those lean years now has beekeepers worried they've opened the door to new problems.
In Stanislaus County, bees are as much a part of a successful almond crop as the weather. Without the delicate touch of these pollinators, there will be no almonds.
For the last 16 years, Jerry Brown has brought bee hives from Nebraska to almond groves in California.
Like many beekeepers he has struggled with a mysterious hive ailment called "colony collapse disorder," an unexplained phenomenon that has wiped out entire colonies of bees all over North America.
"We are having a tremendous struggle right now, and to add one more thing to it - you know we are barely surviving right now," said Brown.
Hives are showing signs of recovery this year, but beekeepers are worried about the sting they may get from thousands of miles away.
To make up for the ailing local populations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed bees to be shipped in from Australia to help pollinate the 660,000 acres of almond orchards in California.
"We have a concern about Australian honeybees coming into the United States," said Brown.
As many as 800 million bees come in to the U.S. by airplane on a single pallet in cartons.
"Our concern is that there is a new bee that has come into Australia that carries a mite that is 10 times worse than the mite that we already have - that we struggling a lot with. And were concerned about the viruses that this other bee carries," said Brown.
Brown says the USDA is not doing enough to protect the local bee population from foreign pests. He says some packets of bee's came into the country with a parasite, the small hive beetle.
Brown worries that if there is one pest, there are likely more he can't see.
"Eventually we are concerned that the mite, and the bee may travel over from Australia and infest the whole country of the United States," said Brown.
Australia stopped shipping bees last December, saying it could not guarantee their bees were free of banned species.
The U.S. Government however, agreed to put procedures in place to keep the bee out and allowed bee shipments to resume in January.
Brown has previously imported Australian bees, but stopped this year fearing he would jeopardize his brood. He's not alone in his concern.
"The whole question is, we are just beginning to find out what we have in our bees and we'd like to have no other negative things come into our bee populations if it's possible," said U.C. Davis entomologist Mussen.
U.C. Davis is home of one of the top bee research centers in the nation.
"Once you bring the live bee in, anything that happens to be with it, whether it's a bee, or whether it's some sort of parasite, or predator, or something like that, could be introduced into the U.S.," said Mussen.
Until 2005, the U.S. could only import bees from Canada.
"Many of the foreign countries have not looked as deep at their bees as we have ours, some haven't looked at their bees much at all," said Mussen.
The USDA'S Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, is responsible for keeping pests out of the U.S.
They declined to go do an on-camera interview, but a Sacramento-based spokesman told us they "have done a fair number of inspections when they were taken in and where bee's were analyzed for parasites, the answers were no."
As for the small hive beetles that turned up in Jerry Brown's shipment from Australia, APHIS said: "there are some pests that are cosmopolitan, those are not a concern because we already have them."
But Jerry Brown is keeping a close eye on his buzzing livelihood. He wants the federal government to do more to ensure that that no mites, and no invasive bees hit U.S. soil.
"I am just concerned. We need to know a lot more, before we just open the door," said
The last shipments of bees have already arrived from Australia. Next year's demand will depend on how well local bees do in the coming months.
Written and produced by Ken Miguel.