Giving bees the brush-off: California almonds, a multi-billion dollar crop, are almost completely dependent on honey bees for pollination. During the short pollination season, a significant fraction of the U.S. honeybee colonies are in the almond orchards — in 2004, for example, sixty percent of the 2.5 million "for-hire" honey bee colonies in the U.S. were involved in almond pollination, according to the Agricultural and Resource Economics Update.
With bees facing threats like colony collapse disorder and growers unhappy about the high cost of rental colonies, geneticists in the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are trying to breed an almond tree that takes bees out of the picture. A long-cultivated variety called Tuono that is originally from Spain is self-pollinating, but produces an almond that is commercially unattractive for several reasons (a perceptibly hairy coating on the skin, for example). In 1996, the USDA geneticists crossed Tuono with California-adapted varieties. Over the years, the research trees have shown improved yield and nut quality, resulting in positive reviews for eight varieties by the California Almond Board in 2008. The article, unfortunately, does not provide any information about future plans for the breeding project, so it's not clear when or if we'll be seeing self-pollinating almonds in the marketplace. (ScienceDaily and Agricultural Research, PDF)