CROP POLLINATION: Experts struggle to explain why numbers down.

There's a distinct lack of buzz on Paul Gill's blueberry fields these days.

The Surrey farmer is among thousands of B.C. farmers who are being stung by fewer bees to pollinate their crops.

Higher bee deaths this winter have cut B.C.'s bee population by roughly 25 per cent, but opinion differs as to why.

Was it the wet and warm weather, or could it be the same mystery illness killing bees worldwide?

"It's tough," said Gill Friday. "The next two to three weeks is very crucial." He needs 250 hives to pollinate 100 acres of blueberries, but is still 50 hives short.

Small-scale blueberry farmers are not getting any hives at all. "They can't get them even if they want them," said Gill, who also speaks for the B.C. Blueberry Council.

Provincial beekeeper Paul van Westendorp said the deaths are higher than usual, but he doesn't know why.

He says there is no proof yet that B.C. has seen an outbreak of the so-called "colony collapse disorder" that has been ravaging bee colonies in the U.S.

"Here in B.C., we have not observed the CCD thing. We have observed higher-than-normal winter losses," said van Westendorp, who suspects CCD is caused by a mix of factors, including viruses, pesticides and intense food production methods.

"There's going to be potentially . . . a shortage in pollination units," said van Westendorp.

Vernon beekeeper Ed Nowek, who also heads the Canada Honey Council, said bee deaths have doubled.

In the Fraser Valley, he's hearing of a 25-per-cent decline in bee-numbers at commercial hives, and a 75-per-cent death rate at hobby-hives.

"I feel personally we have seen higher losses, and that perhaps it is something similar to what's in the U.S.," said Nowek, whose phone is ringing off the hook from Okanagan farmers wanting bees.

"This is a pretty serious concern," said Nowek. "It's hard for those farm operations to get enough bees to pollinate. I don't know who to send them to."

B.C.'s top fruit crops -- blueberries, cranberries, cherries, peaches, apricots, pears and apples -- all need pollination. Without it, crop yields can be off as much as 30 per cent, and crops are smaller and have less quality.

Gill has heard that B.C. lost 15 to 20 million pounds of food last year due to lack of pollination.

But a lot of growers don't bother to pollinate, letting Mother Nature take care of it.

Okanagan apple grower Joe Sardinha has noticed smaller numbers of bees, but doesn't know what the impact will be on his crop yields.

"It's yet to be seen what kind of crop does set," said Sardinha, who is president of the 1,140-strong B.C. Fruit Growers' Association. "Overall, it shouldn't adversely affect the supply."

The agriculture industry is worried about the long-term effects of a worldwide bee disease.

"This has the ability to affect food supply all over the world," said Sardinha. "This is a mysterious one. It has a lot of implications."

But Simon Fraser University bee expert Mark Winston doesn't believe there's a mystery illness. The spread of disease and parasites among bees led to the use of antibiotics and to antibiotic-resistant infections, he said.

He also blamed a wet, warm winter, increased pesticide use and the lack of pollen diversity for bees to eat.

"The key issue here is how do you manage any agricultural system that has become very complicated," he said.

"We should all step back a little bit and take a look at how we grow food overall. We are overmanaging systems, not respecting their natural limits and borders."