LOS BANOS — California's record drought hasn't been sweet to honeybees, and it's creating a sticky situation for beekeepers and honey buyers.
The state is traditionally one of the country's largest honey producers, with abundant crops and wildflowers that provide the nectar that bees turn into honey. But the lack of rain has ravaged native plants and forced farmers to scale back crop production, leaving fewer places for honeybees to forage.
The historic drought, now in its third year, is reducing supplies of California honey, raising prices for consumers and making it harder for beekeepers to earn a living.
"Our honey crop is severely impacted by the drought, and it does impact our bottom line as a business," said Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in Los Banos, a farming town in California's Central Valley.
The state's deepening drought is having widespread impacts across the state. More than 80 percent of the state is under "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency, and residents now face fines of up to $500 a day for wasting water.
The drought is just the latest blow to honeybees, which pollinate about one third of U.S. agricultural crops. In recent years, bee populations worldwide have been decimated by pesticides, parasites and colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly disappear.
The drought is worsening a worldwide shortage of honey that has pushed prices to all-time highs. Over the past eight years, the average retail price for honey has increased 65 percent from $3.83 to $6.32 per pound, according to the National Honey Board.
Since the drought began, California's honey crop has fallen sharply from 27.5 million pounds in 2010 to 10.9 million pounds last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And this year's crop is expected to be even worse.
California was the country's leading honey producer as recently as 2003, but it has since been surpassed by North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Florida. In 2013, California produced less than 10 percent of the country's $317 million honey crop.
On a recent summer morning in Los Banos, swarms of honeybees surrounded Gene Brandi and his son Mike, wearing white helmets with mesh veils, as they cracked open wooden hives and inserted packets of protein supplement to keep the insects healthy.