From Yamagata to Kagoshima prefectures, farmers are bemoaning a shortage of Western honeybees --crucial in the pollination of melons, cherries, strawberries and other crops.

According to the farm ministry's Animal Health Division, imports of Western honeybees ground to a halt last year after an outbreak of a contagious disease was confirmed in 2007 among beehives from Australia.

Honeybees from Australia accounted for about 80 percent of imports to Japan. Moreover, mass bee deaths have been occurring in Europe and the United States.

The halt in imports led to shortages of the species in 21 prefectures, causing prices of honeybees to soar by generally 20 to 30 percent, according to a survey released by the ministry April 10. With only half as many bees on hand as in normal years, some farmers are pollinating by hand, using tools.

And the farmers are worried. They are wary about passing on additional costs caused by the bee shortage to consumers amid the current recession.

In Ibaraki Prefecture, the nation's melon capital, pollination started in full swing in March.

Anticipating a bee shortage, JA Ibaraki Asahimura, an agricultural cooperative association in Hokota, which produces the most melons in the prefecture, ordered honeybees about a month earlier than usual this year. However, the association was able to obtain only about 70 to 80 percent of the number of bees required.

Kiichi Niihori, 55, who grows Andesu melons and other crops in 60 greenhouses in Hokota, usually buys 14 hives, each containing 6,000 bees. But this year he was only able to lay his hands on 10 hives.

Last season, a hive of bees cost 18,000 yen. This season, the price jumped to 23,000 yen.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in my 40 years as a farmer," Niihori said.

In Yamagata Prefecture, an official at the prefectural headquarters of Zen-noh (National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations) said only about 70 percent of honeybees needed for the pollination of cherries and other crops have been available.

According to JA Sagae Nishimurayama, an agricultural cooperative association in Sagae in the prefecture, some farmers have acquired only about half the number of honeybees they usually buy. Many have been forced to pollinate manually with feather dusters and other tools.

"Because cherry trees are tall and bear a lot of flowers, manual pollination is not easy," a JA official said. "It would be better if the cherries could fetch a higher price at market to factor in the additional labor costs, but we're in the middle of a recession."

Though bumblebees and Japanese honeybees are also used for pollination, imported Western honeybees represent the main workforce for the task.

Attempts to increase Western honeybees from queen bees on hand are sometimes thwarted by mass bee deaths.

At the Mamuro Bee Farm in Yoshimi, Saitama Prefecture, which supplies honeybees to farmers in the Kanto region and elsewhere, mass bee deaths on a larger scale have occurred since summer 2007.

The farm was unable to obtain imported bees, and its shipments through March were down about 90 percent, compared with normal years.

"We can't provide honeybees to all the farmers who placed orders with us," said Osamu Mamuro, president of the farm.

However, thanks to the warm weather since late March, bees have been busy propagating, allowing the farm to catch up slightly and pushing shipments to about half of those in regular years.

According to a poll of beekeepers conducted last fall by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, as well as other organizations, about 300 of 1,000 respondents said they had experienced a large number of bee deaths.

Kiyoshi Kimura, a member the institute's research team that conducted the survey, said the mass bee deaths might be attributed to the use of agricultural pesticides and a weakening of honeybees as a result of propagation from among small groups. However, he said, "We can't point at specific causes with certainty."

In response to calls from farmers for measures to cope with the shortage of pollinating honeybees, the farm ministry carried out its emergency survey through prefectural governments and farmers' associations in April.

According to the survey, strawberries and watermelons were suffering the most from the dearth of bees. Cherries in Yamagata Prefecture, melons in Ibaraki Prefecture and apples in Nagano Prefecture were also cited.

With supply restricted, the price of honeybees has soared, by as much as 40 to 50 percent in some locations. As early as January 2008, 556 beekeepers possessed 33,220 hives of pollinating honeybees in Japan, down 5 percent and 14 percent from the previous year, respectively.

On April 17, the farm ministry also announced that the bee shortage had an adverse effect on agriculture in 20 prefectures.

The negative consequences included higher production costs, reduction in the harvest of strawberries and other crops and malformed strawberries produced after unsuccessful pollination.

On April 10, the ministry instructed each prefectural government to track honeybee supply and demand through the end of May and create a system in which farmers in various areas can cooperate in supplying bees.

The ministry will also consider offering financial aid to farmers hard hit by the bee shortage.

Also, the ministry will hasten negotiations with Argentina on importing queen bees. Talks on this have been under way since April 2008.