But production is still likely to be below average while prices remain "volatile" and demand for honey grows, said Bill Huser, vice president of research and development at Sue Bee Honey. The US produces 200 million pounds of honey annually and consumes about 400 million pounds. However, Huser said that in the last year the US crop was only about 150 million pounds so there is quite a shortage. This is partly due to colony collapse disorder (CCD) where bees from a colony desert the hive and die. The cause of this is unknown. Huser told FoodNavigator-USA.com: "There is a problem keeping bees healthy now that didn't exist a few years ago "As long has that disorder is with us and the cause hasn't been identified, honey crops will be variable. "We had our poorest crop in many years last year and it was in a sequential - over the last five to seven years we've seen decline. "This year everything is looking a little brighter as far as the US goes. We are hoping for a 25 - 30 million pound increase." A natural sweetener Sue Bee Honey is a cooperative marketing organization which claims to be the world's largest honey marketing association. Its 350 beekeepers produce about 40 million pounds of honey each year. Most of its members come from the western two thirds of the US as well as Florida and Georgia. It sells to retailers as well as food manufacturers which use honey in baked goods, salad dressings, sauces, candies, dairy products, spreads, cereals meats, snacks and brewery products. Huser said that the retail market for honey has not changed much in the last several years but its use as an ingredient in other products has grown. In the last 20 years Sue Bee Honey's bulk sales have gone from very low to about $30million. Meanwhile prices have increased by about 50 per cent within a year. United States Department of Agricultural National Honey Report for December showed that South Dakota clover white honey was between 92-95 cents per pound compared to $1.40 - 1.45 in May. Honey has a high fructose content which makes it sweeter than sugar. It is also a flavor enhancer and Sue Bee claims that it contains more nutrients than refined sugars, including antioxidants. Huser added: "They (food manufacturers) want to make products right now that are all natural ingredients. That is part of the increased demand for honey." Bee population Honey bees are responsible for pollinating more than 130 different crops, and are a key factor in the agricultural industry's ability to provide food products. Over the last few winters, more than 25 per cent of the honey bee population in the United States has vanished, with early reports from beekeepers indicating this phenomenon was continuing in 2008. The various reasons for the decline in bees include poor nutrition, invasive mites and CCD. Premium ice cream group Haagen-Dazs, which is owned by Nestlé in the US, has given researchers in California and Pennsylvania $250,000 to help with their studies into what it calls the "complex honey bee situation". It claims that nearly 40 per cent of its ice cream flavors include ingredients dependent on honey bees for pollination, and other food companies have also warned of potential crises if crops are not correctly pollinated. Meanwhile the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is also working to determine the causes of CCD, which first became a matter of concern in the winter of 2006-2007 when some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30 to 90 per cent of their hives. Imported honey from countries such as Vietnam India, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and Mexico is playing a big part in the US market now but Huser said this is not premium honey multi-floral blends. The bee problem does not appear to be affecting other parts of the world.