Business & Real Estate

California almond industry moves to protect vital bee colonies

Almond trees bloom and bees pollinate the crop in and around Modesto in February.
Almond trees bloom and bees pollinate the crop in and around Modesto in February. Modesto Bee file

The importance of honeybees to California’s almond crop is written across the state’s landscape every February – when an armada of trucks filled with beehives enters the state.

Without the bees to pollinate the trees, there would be no almond crop.

The importance of honeybees is now written across a first-ever set of public guidelines for almond growers and beekeepers, released Thursday by the California Almond Board. The guidelines are meant to safeguard bees, whose winter numbers have been plunging.

“We would not have an almond industry if we didn’t have bees,” said Richard Waycott, CEO of the Almond Board of California. “We’re joined at the hip with the beekeeping industry.”

What happens during almond pollination – especially when pesticides are applied – has a significant impact on beehives, experts say. As a result, the Almond Board guidelines focus on pesticide use, and especially how it is applied during almond bloom.

“The honeybee die-off rate recorded over the winter months is a very big concern for everyone,” said Waycott.

Threats to honeybees have become a national issue since bee colony collapse disorder was identified in 2006. In June, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum directing U.S. agencies to take further steps to protect and restore domestic populations of pollinators, including honeybees.

In California, beekeepers in orchards from Fresno to Bakersfield encountered extremely harsh losses to colonies last season. A likely culprit: tank mixing of insecticides that are highly toxic to bees, said Eric Mussen, apiculturist with UC Davis Cooperative Extension. He said an estimated 80,000 to 87,000 bee colonies were damaged.

The guidelines, which are voluntary, seek to create a dialogue between almond growers and beekeepers, especially over pesticide use and the mixing of pesticides and fungicides.

For growers, bee health is an issue of great financial significance.

“Pollination is the highest per-acre cost that growers experience, at $300 per acre to rent the hives,” said David Phippen, an almond farmer in Manteca. “The last thing that we would want to do is put that value at risk in any way. If we mistreated or did not do the best practices that we could, the beekeeper would not be anxious to bring their bees back.”

During the second week of February, a million beehives are brought into California to pollinate the almond crop. Half a million from California participate in that pollination, too. In total, more than 780,000 acres are pollinated by bees.

Phippen brings in 2,400 hives from as far as Montana and Texas to pollinate his trees. He said he has developed a close relationship with the beekeepers, but that such relationships are not always the norm.

“There are a lot of new people that have come into the industry, especially with the almond industry being so successful,” Phippen said. “There are former cotton growers and former wine grape growers that have become almond growers, and these practices are not familiar to them.”

The new guidelines were warmly received by those in the beekeeper community.

“I’m impressed with how well it addresses all the issues that have arisen over the past few years,” said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis. “The writers made it clear that there is research to be done concerning larva and young bees. They have also stressed the dangers of mixing insecticides and fungicides.”

Some say such voluntary guidelines may be too small a step to safeguard the bees.

Paul Towers, spokesman for Pesticide Action Network, called the Almond Board’s guidelines a “step in the right direction,” but said that what’s needed is mandatory government regulation.

“Ultimately, voluntary programs shouldn’t take the place of government regulators who are falling down on the job,” said Towers. “As bee-harming pesticides remain on the market, Americans shouldn’t have to only rely on grocery stores and farmers to step up.”

The Pesticide Action Network belongs to a coalition of environmental groups that earlier this year sued the state Department of Pesticide Regulation for approving pesticides that the plaintiffs say are harmful to bees.

The Almond Board guidelines do not instruct growers not to use those pesticides, but offer recommendations on when and where to use them.

A big issue is the mixing of pesticides and fungicides, and that’s a practice that the state does not regulate, said Charlotte Fadipe, spokeswoman for the Department of Pesticide Regulation. “It’s really a federal issue, not a state matter,” Fadipe said.

“However, bees and almonds are important to California. So DPR has been proactively working with the Almond Board as to how to address this issue,” Fadipe said. “We think it is wise to avoid tank mixing, but it is not a state requirement.”

A major concern regarding pesticides and bees involves the use of a group of compounds called neonicotinoids. These are the pesticides that prompted the lawsuit against DPR by environmental groups.

DPR is currently partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in asking pesticide manufacturers to do a series of scientific studies to show how those pesticides affect bee health, said Fadipe.

She said the law requires the DPR to determine whether the compounds are hazardous to bees by 2018. The department expects final results of the studies by late 2016, she said.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

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