Bees in the trees

Dispute between citrus farmers and beekeepers creates buzz

The honey of the bee may be sweet, but some California citrus farmers say they’re getting stung.

The honey of the bee may be sweet, but some California citrus farmers say they’re getting stung.

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What were mandarin growers in the San Joaquin Valley thinking when they planted their seedless Murcotts next to their seedless Clementines in a region swarming with cross-pollinating bees? This planting arrangement, say sideline observers, including growers of seedless citrus in Placer County and agriculture experts at UC Davis, was a surefire recipe for seed-riddled fruit, as anyone in the citrus biz should have known.

“I’m just a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, but I was smart enough to read the horticulture guides before I planted,” said John Miller, a farmer and beekeeper who grows 3.5 acres of seedless Owari satsuma mandarins in Newcastle.

But in Southern California’s “Citrus Belt,” growers didn’t take proper precautions, say critics, and now, after decades of peaceful relations between beekeepers and citrus farmers, things have gone sour.

It began in the last decade, when a group of innovators planted Murcott mandarins near their Clementines. The pollen of these two varieties is highly inter-reactive, and when the two cross-pollinate, seeds form in both, substantially diminishing the fruits’ value. Since 2006, when the first seedy crop came to fruition, citrus growers have blamed beekeepers for damages that resulted when their bees foraged from orchard to orchard, cross-pollinating along the way. In some cases, the farmers threatened the beekeepers with lawsuits.

In February, the California Department of Food and Agriculture proposed regulations that would ask beekeepers to pre-register their hives at specific locations, thereby informing farmers of any potentially problematic hive placements. Concerned parties would be expected to settle the matter privately. Neither side is entirely happy with the proposed regulations, which were submitted for a 45-day public-comment period on February 27. On April 13, they could become law or be redrafted for further review.

Gene Brandi, legislative chairman for the California State Beekeepers Association, has kept bees in the Citrus Belt for 35 years. Farmers, he says, were well aware that bees roamed the area.

“So why they didn’t plant their trees a bit more strategically is a question that has been asked again and again at our meetings,” he says.

Literature that discusses the effects that pollinators can have on seedless fruits has been available for decades. One such manual, Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, was published by the United States Department of Agriculture in July 1976. The handbook discusses in detail the seedy results that may come of combining different citrus varieties in range of roaming bees.

UC Davis’ nationally recognized entomologist and bee expert, Dr. Eric Mussen, speculates on the matter.

“If the farmers knew they’d have these issues and they still planted as they planted, then they must have done it under the supposition that they were going to force the bees out,” Mussen says.

But citrus-industry reps deny such a plan. Barney Evans, vice president of marketing and sales at citrus-growing giant Sun Pacific conceded that he and company managers knew that cross-pollination issues could be a problem.

“We just thought we could plant [sterile] navel oranges between the Murcotts and Clementines to create buffer zones,” Evans explained. Subsequent research, he says, revealed a daunting surprise: “These bees can fly for miles.”

Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade organization, says that the San Joaquin Valley is home to far too many bees, many of which are transported to the Sacramento Valley from out of state for the February almond bloom. Afterward, many move into the Citrus Belt. Nelson says that the overcrowded bees must travel exceptionally far to find sufficient forage, and as a result, internationally recommended tree-buffering strategies have proved ineffective.

“We’re not telling the beekeepers, ‘No, you can’t be here,’” says Nelson. “We’re willing to take care of the California beekeepers, but we can’t handle all the beekeepers in the country. You have to keep in mind that [citrus farmers] are not responsible for feeding bees.”

Sun Pacific, Paramount Citrus and others have begun placing fine netting over their Murcott trees to keep the bees out. The scheme, report industry reps, is very expensive, time-consuming and far from an ideal solution.

In many places around the world, beekeepers depend upon farmers for access to their blooming fields and orchards, where bees gather nectar and pollen to feed their colonies. And in today’s changing environment, says Mussen, honeybees need all the food they can get.

“John Muir once said that in the spring there was no way you walk down the Central Valley without crushing wildflowers under every step,” Mussen says. “That’s not exactly how the Valley is anymore. We don’t have that bloom out there, so after the bees get out of almonds, the beekeepers have to find somewhere else to go.”

For decades, the Citrus Belt has been just the place, providing forage for hundreds of thousands of hives.

Near Auburn, Rich Ferreira runs an organic operation at Side Hill Citrus. He welcomes bees among his seedless mandarins, but he has just 23 acres to offer. Ferreira, like others, observes the debacle down south with a bit of bafflement and says the problem could have been avoided before it even became one.

“They should have planted varieties that work in our environment. What bees do to citrus isn’t unknown. You’d think they would have done their homework.”