VACAVILLE, Calif. -- In a field west of Sacramento, a man in a white zip-up suit, hat and veil peers into a small wooden box.
It's about noon on a sunny spring day, and he's looking at hundreds of honeybees, searching for the queen. If she's ready, he'll pluck her out with his bare fingers and place her in a tiny plastic cage. Eventually, she may be mailed to a beekeeper as far away as Alaska.
"It's very calming, except when you get stung," said Johnathan Burton of Taber's Honey Bee Genetics, staying focused on the glistening, humming mass of insects. "You just have to be very delicate."
Burton's concentration is testimony to the labor-intensive nature of bee breeding, an often overlooked but essential part of American agriculture requiring skilled and steady hands, exact timing and the cooperation of the weather.
Many beekeepers depend on breeders to raise the queens they need to keep their hives strong for making honey and pollinating crops such as almonds, apples and plums.
Honeybees pollinate about a third of the human diet and more than 50 agricultural crops in the United States valued at more than $20 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Bee breeders are "a really crucial component to the whole beekeeping and pollination industry," said Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, research leader at the center. "There's a real art to breeding queens."
From larvae the size of the head of a pin, breeders raise the queens until they are mated, then mail them to beekeepers across the country - sometimes even overseas. The process takes about four weeks.
California is the country's leading producer of honeybee queens, and the north state is prime territory for the industry, with about 20 commercial breeders producing about 450,000 queens each year, said Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis. Some breeders send thousands of queens a day during April.
Beekeepers in northern and midwestern states depend on breeders in California and southern states including Georgia, Louisiana and Texas to supply mated queens this time of year.
The weather has to cooperate perfectly for a virgin queen to leave the colony and mate with drone bees from other colonies, and in much of the country it's too cold in March, April and May - prime mating season - for a queen to venture out of the hive, DeGrandi-Hoffman said.
Getting a queen well mated is essential, because once she starts laying eggs she'll never mate again, although she'll produce as many as 1,500 fertilized eggs a day for up to three years, said Tom Parisian, who started Taber's Honey Bee Genetics in 1980.
Even in California, the weather is one of the biggest challenges, because queens need sunny, warm and calm weather to mate.
"Mother Nature plays a huge role in it," said Jackie Park-Burris, president of the California Bee Breeders Association. She runs a commercial queen breeding business in Shasta County and estimates she ships between 15,000 and 20,000 queens every season, usually in packs of 50 or 100. They cost $10.50 to $14.50 each.
For Parisian, the process begins in January, when he rents his hives to almond growers across the state so they can grow strong on the nutritious pollen. By March, he begins grafting the first larvae into tiny cups with a special needle-like instrument, transferring the queens-to-be from the comb in which they are laid.
Then, he slides the rows of grafted cells - 45 in all - into a queen-less colony, where anxious worker bees will feed the larvae a special diet of royal jelly that determines their caste as queens.
Breeders must make sure to remove the larvae before any hatch - after 10 days - because virgin queens will instinctively try to kill their sisters.
The larvae is placed in a mating nucleus, a small colony where the queen will hatch and spend about 14 to 17 days while she mates.
Each breeder has his or her own system, said Parisian, who sell his queens for $13 to $19 to hobbyists and commercial keepers. He produces about 6,000 a year, packing them in slender wooden boxes he slips into a priority mail envelope bearing a bright yellow label: "Live Queen Bees."
The pressure is on to produce as many queens as possible during the short, three-month season because demand is high.
"There really aren't that many of us," Park-Burris said. "We can't skip a beat or the whole industry's in trouble up here."
It's a hard way to make a living, said Park-Burris, whose family has been in the business for 80 years. Like farming, profits go up and down from year to year, depending on the weather and the breeders' limited ability to control the complex social lives of the insects.
Although demand for queens remains high, the number of overall colonies in the country is declining, said UC Davis' Mussen.
"There are lots of factors," Mussen said. "But there's an awful lot of gray-haired individuals out there. It doesn't appear to be a young man's business at this time."
On the Net:
The Carl Hayden Bee Research Center: http://gears.tucson.ars.ag.gov/
Taber's Honey Bee Genetics: http://22.214.171.124/order.html