Bee deaths threaten valley crops

February 1, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Valley agriculture is facing a shortage of bees; up to half of the nation's honey bee population has died off over the winter.

Bad news for beekeepers like David Bradshaw, "The bees were looking great until December, then all the older bees started dying off."

Bradshaw has been keeping bees and making honey in Tulare County for forty years. He says this is shaping up to be the worst bee season ever. Dry weather, parasites and possibly pesticides are being blamed for bee deaths around the world. Half of his 4 thousand hives will not be used this year because the bees died.

"They are not my children but you know sometimes I feel like it, and when they have problems surviving, I feel responsible," Bradshaw said.

He shows us one of his healthy hives, and the key to the hive, the queen. She's more than twice the size of the worker bees.

"She's a very pretty golden color, and all right in here are eggs and the pollen. That's all she does, she's an egg laying machine," Bradshaw said.

But many of the bees that hatch from those eggs may not survive or, be strong enough to work, pollinating crops. University of California Farm Advisor Shannon Mueller says agriculture will feel the impact.

"What that means is almond growers may have a tough time getting the bees they need to produce their crop. We've got 750 thousand acres of almonds, that means 1.5 million bee hives of honey bees to come into the state and pollinate the crop, "Mueller said.

Mueller says there are a variety of reasons for the dying bees. Weather, parasites, disease. Another controversial possibility is pesticides; synthetic nicotine used in many valley orchards was just banned in Europe because of its possible effect on bees. The US government still says it's safe.

Whatever the reason, the shortage of bees to make almond trees produce almonds could raise prices for growers, and if things don't get better a lot of bee keepers could go out of business.

Bradshaw says, "I have 4 employees and make sure they have jobs and I have a job next year, it's hard."

If the bees keep dying Mueller says we may all feel the sting.

"About a third of the food we eat, if we trace it back a bee is responsible for its production for a lot of fruit nut vegetable crops are pollinated by honey bees," Mueller said.


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