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GACKLE, North Dakota -There was barely a buzz in the air as John Miller pried the lid off of a crate, one of several "bee boxes" stacked in eight neat piles beside a cattle grazing pasture outside Gackle, North Dakota.
"Nothing," Miller said as he lifted a plastic hive frame from the box, squirming with only a few dozen bees. "Normally this would be dripping, full of honey. But not this year."
A scorching drought is slashing honey production in North Dakota, the top producing state of the sweet syrup. That means fewer bees can thrive, which leads to even less honey.
The shortage of strong bee colonies, meanwhile, is putting West Coast cash crops like almonds, plums and apples at risk, according to more than a dozen interviews with farmers, bee experts, economists and farm industry groups.
Miller and other Midwestern apiarists haul their drought-weakened insects by truck to California almond farms in the winter to pollinate orchards in the top global producer of the nuts increasingly in demand for milk substitutes. Then they move on to other fruits.
The drought's impact therefore will be felt far beyond North Dakota, where withered alfalfa fields and parched pastures usually teeming with sweet clover and gumweed are providing bees little nectar this summer.
The dearth of strong bee colonies and the resulting higher costs to lease them for pollination services will add to the challenges of West Coast growers already dealing with drought and, in California, soaring water costs. It could also add to soaring costs consumers are facing at grocery stores.
Scientists have linked weather extremes from severe heat to floods and droughts to climate change. Such weather events are rippling through the food chain, raising food costs and heaping economic pain on small-scale farmer -- and devastating bee colonies.
The 2.7 million managed honey bee colonies in the United States, one in five of them in North Dakota, are crucial to pollinating scores of crops, including cherries and peaches as well as almonds and apples. Income from pollination services totaled $254 million in 2020, according to U.S. government data.
Many beekeepers produce honey during summer in the northern Midwest and Plains, where bees forage on pastures and rangelands, harvesting what honey the bees do not consume or stow away to nourish their young.
North and South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota accounted for 46% of all U.S. honey production last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Apiarists truck the bee hives to milder climates like California during the fall and winter, generating crucial income by leasing colonies to fruit and nut farms to pollinate crops.
Poor summer weather on the prairies has left colonies weakened, with fewer bees. A smaller amount of nectar also forces beekeepers to help feed their colonies with less nutritious sugar solution or corn syrup, an added expense for producers already hurt by a smaller honey harvest.