Ag Today March 20, 2017

Bee deaths soar in this year’s pollination season, but why is proving to be a whodunit

BY ROBERT RODRIGUEZ

brodriguez@fresnobee.com

As a beekeeper, Rafael Reynaga is used to losing a few bees during almond pollination. But he was unprepared for the death of tens of thousands of his bees in what Fresno County agriculture officials are calling a perfect storm of events.

“It was really bad,” said Reynaga of Reedley. “I picked up one of the boxes and there were at least 10 pounds of dead bees.”

Since early February, the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has been investigating at least 12 cases of bee deaths in eastern and western Fresno County, more than three times what normally happens. Beekeepers say the total death toll is at least 800,000 bees, possibly more. Dollar losses to beekeepers vary from about $100,000 to $1 million.

“This may be the most we have ever seen,” said Stace Leoni, Fresno County deputy agricultural commissioner. “But there could be multiple factors for what caused this, not just one thing.”

Leoni estimates that as many as 8,000 hives may be affected.

“Bees are such an important part of agriculture and to see this happen is disheartening,” said Joe Traynor, a Kern County bee broker. “To me, this is a result of people not following the rules.”

But Leoni and Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright say it’s not that simple. The bee deaths may be the result of a combination of factors, including pesticide spraying, humid weather, and the encroachment of almond acreage into areas that traditionally have been home to tree fruit.

EVERYONE DID EVERYTHING RIGHT FOR THE MOST PART. THAT’S WHY WE ARE SAYING IT WAS THE PERFECT STORM

Stace Leoni, deputy Fresno County agricultural commissioner

Agriculture officials said it doesn’t help matters when beekeepers don’t register their hives with the county. The registration allows the county to let farmers know if there are any bees in the area where they plan to apply pesticides. If there are, farmers are obligated to let the beekeeper know about any planned applications so that they can protect their bees by covering them or moving them out of the area.

“If they don’t register, there is no way for the farmer to contact the beekeeper,” Wright said. “And we are starting to run into problems that we haven’t had in the past.”

A concentration of bees

Every year in early February, beekeepers from throughout the nation descend on the San Joaquin Valley’s almond orchards in what may be the largest pollination event of its kind. The bees are vital to the development of the state’s almond crop that last year produced 2 billion pounds. Almonds are one of California’s top money-making commodities and are Fresno County’s top crop.

But as the state’s almond acreage continues to grow, topping 1.1 million acres, and water availability becomes even more critical, almond growers have begun moving into pockets of east Fresno County where peaches, plums and nectarines have been grown for decades. The problem is that some early varieties of nectarines begin blooming ahead of the almond trees. Farmers routinely spray their nectarines with a potent pesticide to prevent insects from scarring the fruit’s skin.

Leoni said the state restricts the application of pesticides considered toxic to bees to evening hours when bees are not active. But during the early weeks of almond pollination the region was blanketed with high humidity, preventing the pesticide from completely drying before the bees became active in the daylight.

“Everyone did everything right for the most part,” Leoni said. “That’s why we are saying it was the perfect storm.”

As part of the county’s investigation, Leoni said it appears that the pesticide applications were done lawfully. What she is looking into now is what pesticides were found on the bees. Recent lab results found an average of 17 different pesticides from a sample of bees. Leoni and her staff will try to determine if any of those pesticides were being used in the areas where the insects were pollinating.

“And if we find that there were no applications of those materials, then we have to figure out how did they end up with these pesticides on them,” Leoni said.

Reynaga said that while he doesn’t know what killed his insects, he’s not going back to the Sanger area where his bees met their fate. His losses totaled $104,000 and insurance will not cover the deaths.

“I am staying away from there,” he said. “That is too many bees to lose. I just hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”