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Why half of San Diego’s bees are gone

The success of California farms is at risk

Bee pollinating a dandelion
Bee pollinating a dandelion

Basta! Enough talk about the potential departure of a greedy billionaire’s professional football team. Let’s talk about something important: relentless departure of bees. Mother Nature has walloped us with her version of The Sting: bee disappearance. It’s taking a bite out of agriculture, particularly in California, including San Diego.

Thirty percent of the food we eat depends on pollination by bees. They travel from bloom to bloom, feeding. As they travel, they spread pollen containing male sex cells. This enables the plants to produce fruit.

The good news is that this year, El Niño could slow down or even reverse the bee losses, says Alan Mikolich, one of 10 to 15 commercial beekeepers in the county, by his estimate. Mikolich says beekeepers have thrived in past El Niño years, although some worry that if El Niño brings too much rain and cold, the recalcitrant bees may refuse to fly.

He says there are thousands of bee hobbyists in San Diego County. Most of them use the bees for honey production. San Diego is the third-largest county in the nation for honey production, according to the San Diego Farm Bureau. All told, there are 25,000 to 30,000 hives in the county.

The commercial beekeepers rent their hives for $165 to $215 each to California growers of sunflowers, apples, cherries, almonds, melons, cucumbers, kiwis, and avocados. (California produces 90 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States, and San Diego County produces half the state’s output.) Bees also pollinate broccoli, fruit trees, onion, and seed crops within the county.

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Beekeepers, including many in San Diego County, transport their hives from farm to farm. Of the San Diego commercial beekeepers, “Almost all try to get their bees to the Central Valley almond crops,” says Steve Gibbs of the San Diego Beekeeping Society. Almond growing is completely dependent on pollination. The income from almonds “has kept [San Diego County beekeepers] from folding during the drought years.” Local beekeepers also “send some to Imperial Valley during summer months for alfalfa pollination.”

California produces one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts. The state produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and 70 percent of them are exported.

In the past half-century, the United States bee population has plunged by 50 percent. There is normally attrition in the winter months, but since 2006, the bee population has sunk by around 33 percent a year — about double the normal loss. The beekeepers add bees every year to make up for the loss, says Mikolich, remarking that San Diego beekeepers’ annual losses are about the same as the national rate. “Some people lost 35 to 40 percent” in San Diego County last year, he says. “I had an 80 percent loss.”

A major villain is called colony collapse disorder. The majority of worker bees in a colony can’t be found, dead or alive. The queen bee stays, along with immature bees and nurse bees that take care of the small band that remain. Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disorder.

Varroa mite
Varroa destructor on bee larva
Varroa mites on pupa

The eight-legged Varroa mite (also known by its Latin name, Varroa destructor) is the big killer in San Diego County, says Mikolich. These mites are parasites that attach themselves to bees’ bodies, weakening them. A major Varroa mite infestation can kill off a bee colony.

Malnutrition, genetic factors, and pesticides are other causes of bee disappearance. Beekeeper practices play a role: for instance, the transportation of hives from one farm to another may be responsible for attrition.

“We have not had any reports of colony collapse in San Diego County,” says Travis Elder, deputy agricultural commissioner, San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. “All hive losses to this point have been from other traceable environmental factors, such as starvation, Varroa mites, disease, foulbrood [bacterial disease of larvae], hive beetle, wax moth [which feed on bees’ honeycomb wax], or pesticides.”

San Diego County honey receipts plunged from $971,000 in 2013 to $151,000 the following year. But the value of pollination services almost doubled from $1.2 million to $2.1 million over the same period. Elder expects honey production to continue downward and pollination services to keep going up because of drought conditions last year.

The bee-population plunge has economic implications. Because of the plummeting bee population, farmers renting hives from beekeepers have to pay around 20 percent more than usual. That can hurt, because crop production dropped in the drought. The shortage of almonds drove prices up to around $4.70 a pound.

Now almond growers face the same problems other American exporters face: economic turmoil overseas and a dollar that is too strong against other currencies. Demand has dropped in the troubled Middle East and China. Some importers in those areas are refusing to accept almonds that they contracted to purchase. The almond price dropped to around $2.60 a pound recently.

Thus far, we have discussed domesticated bees. Wild bees play an important role in pollination, too. A recent University of Vermont study indicated there has been a drastic decline in wild bees. Fortunately, “San Diego has a relatively higher wild bee abundance on croplands,” says Insu Koh, who spearheaded the research. By contrast, Imperial County “has very large pollinator-dependent croplands, but wild bee abundance is relatively low.” Imperial is one of the United States counties with a marked wild-bee deficiency, he says.

In mid-2014, the federal government launched a program to save the bees. The White House said that “pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than $15 billion through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diet.” The number of managed honey bee colonies in America plunged from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million in 2014, said the government.

Last September, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved new rules for unincorporated areas to bolster local beekeeping. The new ordinance permits beekeepers to place their hives closer to roads and neighbors than previous rules permitted.

As Elder explains, the beekeeper with 1 or 2 hives can keep them only 25 feet from a roadway, 25 feet from a property line, and 35 feet from a neighbor’s house.

“With 3 to 20 hives, the distances are 50 feet from a roadway, 50 feet from a property line, and 100 feet from a neighboring dwelling,” he says. For 21 or more hives, the distances are 100 feet from a roadway and 300 feet from a neighboring dwelling.

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Bee pollinating a dandelion
Bee pollinating a dandelion

Basta! Enough talk about the potential departure of a greedy billionaire’s professional football team. Let’s talk about something important: relentless departure of bees. Mother Nature has walloped us with her version of The Sting: bee disappearance. It’s taking a bite out of agriculture, particularly in California, including San Diego.

Thirty percent of the food we eat depends on pollination by bees. They travel from bloom to bloom, feeding. As they travel, they spread pollen containing male sex cells. This enables the plants to produce fruit.

The good news is that this year, El Niño could slow down or even reverse the bee losses, says Alan Mikolich, one of 10 to 15 commercial beekeepers in the county, by his estimate. Mikolich says beekeepers have thrived in past El Niño years, although some worry that if El Niño brings too much rain and cold, the recalcitrant bees may refuse to fly.

He says there are thousands of bee hobbyists in San Diego County. Most of them use the bees for honey production. San Diego is the third-largest county in the nation for honey production, according to the San Diego Farm Bureau. All told, there are 25,000 to 30,000 hives in the county.

The commercial beekeepers rent their hives for $165 to $215 each to California growers of sunflowers, apples, cherries, almonds, melons, cucumbers, kiwis, and avocados. (California produces 90 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States, and San Diego County produces half the state’s output.) Bees also pollinate broccoli, fruit trees, onion, and seed crops within the county.

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Beekeepers, including many in San Diego County, transport their hives from farm to farm. Of the San Diego commercial beekeepers, “Almost all try to get their bees to the Central Valley almond crops,” says Steve Gibbs of the San Diego Beekeeping Society. Almond growing is completely dependent on pollination. The income from almonds “has kept [San Diego County beekeepers] from folding during the drought years.” Local beekeepers also “send some to Imperial Valley during summer months for alfalfa pollination.”

California produces one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts. The state produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and 70 percent of them are exported.

In the past half-century, the United States bee population has plunged by 50 percent. There is normally attrition in the winter months, but since 2006, the bee population has sunk by around 33 percent a year — about double the normal loss. The beekeepers add bees every year to make up for the loss, says Mikolich, remarking that San Diego beekeepers’ annual losses are about the same as the national rate. “Some people lost 35 to 40 percent” in San Diego County last year, he says. “I had an 80 percent loss.”

A major villain is called colony collapse disorder. The majority of worker bees in a colony can’t be found, dead or alive. The queen bee stays, along with immature bees and nurse bees that take care of the small band that remain. Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disorder.

Varroa mite
Varroa destructor on bee larva
Varroa mites on pupa

The eight-legged Varroa mite (also known by its Latin name, Varroa destructor) is the big killer in San Diego County, says Mikolich. These mites are parasites that attach themselves to bees’ bodies, weakening them. A major Varroa mite infestation can kill off a bee colony.

Malnutrition, genetic factors, and pesticides are other causes of bee disappearance. Beekeeper practices play a role: for instance, the transportation of hives from one farm to another may be responsible for attrition.

“We have not had any reports of colony collapse in San Diego County,” says Travis Elder, deputy agricultural commissioner, San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. “All hive losses to this point have been from other traceable environmental factors, such as starvation, Varroa mites, disease, foulbrood [bacterial disease of larvae], hive beetle, wax moth [which feed on bees’ honeycomb wax], or pesticides.”

San Diego County honey receipts plunged from $971,000 in 2013 to $151,000 the following year. But the value of pollination services almost doubled from $1.2 million to $2.1 million over the same period. Elder expects honey production to continue downward and pollination services to keep going up because of drought conditions last year.

The bee-population plunge has economic implications. Because of the plummeting bee population, farmers renting hives from beekeepers have to pay around 20 percent more than usual. That can hurt, because crop production dropped in the drought. The shortage of almonds drove prices up to around $4.70 a pound.

Now almond growers face the same problems other American exporters face: economic turmoil overseas and a dollar that is too strong against other currencies. Demand has dropped in the troubled Middle East and China. Some importers in those areas are refusing to accept almonds that they contracted to purchase. The almond price dropped to around $2.60 a pound recently.

Thus far, we have discussed domesticated bees. Wild bees play an important role in pollination, too. A recent University of Vermont study indicated there has been a drastic decline in wild bees. Fortunately, “San Diego has a relatively higher wild bee abundance on croplands,” says Insu Koh, who spearheaded the research. By contrast, Imperial County “has very large pollinator-dependent croplands, but wild bee abundance is relatively low.” Imperial is one of the United States counties with a marked wild-bee deficiency, he says.

In mid-2014, the federal government launched a program to save the bees. The White House said that “pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than $15 billion through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diet.” The number of managed honey bee colonies in America plunged from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million in 2014, said the government.

Last September, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved new rules for unincorporated areas to bolster local beekeeping. The new ordinance permits beekeepers to place their hives closer to roads and neighbors than previous rules permitted.

As Elder explains, the beekeeper with 1 or 2 hives can keep them only 25 feet from a roadway, 25 feet from a property line, and 35 feet from a neighbor’s house.

“With 3 to 20 hives, the distances are 50 feet from a roadway, 50 feet from a property line, and 100 feet from a neighboring dwelling,” he says. For 21 or more hives, the distances are 100 feet from a roadway and 300 feet from a neighboring dwelling.

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