By Dave Sherwood
CASABLANCA, Chile, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Beekeeper Pablo Alvarez squats beside his backyard hives and points upward into a cloudless Chilean sky. Bees come and go along the line he signals, flying in unison as if riding an invisible highway in the air.
This season, traffic is way down, Alvarez says.
A quick scan around his beeyard tells the story. Southern hemisphere spring showers once spawned meadows of dandelions in this vineyard-speckled Pacific coast town. Now there is just dust and hardpan.
Alvarez, secretary of Casablanca's beekeeper association, says he had already lost half his hives by early spring. "At the end of winter, bees need flowers to grow and make honey," he told Reuters as he dabbled among the quiet hives. No flowers means no food, he said.
His story is typical of beekeepers large and small in much of central Chile, where a punishing, decade-long drought is making life difficult for honey bees, according to government officials, beekeepers and industry experts interviewed by Reuters.
Concern over the impact of changing environments on bees has reached the highest levels of government in Chile. The country has already unleashed millions in aid for drought-stricken farmers. In August, it said it would include a line item in future agency budgets to account for the 'costs' of climate change.
"We all know the importance that bees have in agricultural production," Agriculture Minister Antonio Walker recently told reporters. He said the drought's impact on the country's estimated 985,000 hives was "serious."
Honey bees pollinate many of Chile's principal export crops, including avocados, blueberries, raspberries, apples, cherries, and almonds. The bees help underpin Chile's food industry, among the southern hemisphere's largest and worth some $34 billion in sales annually.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last year found Chile was already well short of the hives it needed to meet the demands of farmers. Honey exports, meanwhile, dropped by half last season from the previous year, trade data show.
Daniel Barrera, a bee industry expert with the agriculture ministry, said a precise count of hives lost this year will not be available until 2020. But bleak reports from the field, he said, were more than enough to warrant government aid for beekeepers.
"We're not going to wait until we have the final data to take emergency action," he said.
Already, agriculture officials have decreed a state of emergency in more than 100 farm communities throughout central Chile. Though occasional dry spells are normal, officials say climate change has made the current one longer and more severe. Rainfall in September in Santiago was down nearly 80% versus the historical average.
"BEES ARE SUFFERING"
Hernan Chavez has long kept bees along the flanks of the snow-capped Andes Mountains outside Santiago. This year, barren hillsides forced him to move his hives to the smog-ridden city center instead, where flowers still bloom because "there's always someone watering plants."
Chavez, an api-therapist who uses honey bee products for alternative medicine, normally rents his 800 hives in the spring to pollinate the avocado crop, topping up his income. But last winter, three-quarters of his bees died off.
"The drought has really hit us hard," he said.
Mayda Verde, a Cuban veterinarian working with research laboratory Fraunhofer Chile, has advised more than 100 beekeepers in Chile on quick fixes, like keeping clean water nearby, to help bees confront a changing climate.
"There are things, which not everyone is doing, that can reduce the impact," she said.
Alvarez, of Casablanca, agrees. He has begun nurturing an organic bee yard filled with native, drought-resistant plants.
Yet even as he describes those efforts, the horn of a cistern water truck blares. His well has run dry. Now he must pay for water, too.
Even once simple solutions are getting complicated, said Enrique Mejias, a Santiago-based biochemist at Abeille, a consultancy.
"There's no water anywhere," Mejias said. "The bees are suffering just the same as cattle, crops and people."
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)
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