Santa Barbara beekeeper Bill Williams has imagined this scenario more than a few times during his 35 years on the job: Food sources would dry up due to an absence of pollination in orchards and fields and farmers would suddenly have no income. And, perhaps most importantly of all, society would gain a newfound appreciation of beekeepers (and bees) as regal stewards of the earth’s ecosystems and humankind’s fruit, grain, and vegetable supplies. A boycott by beekeepers against farmers “would be awesome” said Williams. “That would do it. That would be famine.”
Williams, who has kept bees in California and other western states for more than 30 years, renting them out to farmers who need the bees to pollinate their crops, doesn’t really want to see a famine, but he would like just a little more respect. “When their crops are blossoming they’ll cry that they need you as soon as possible to come in with the beehives,” said Williams. “But as soon as the bees are in and they’ve done their job, it’s like the farmers don’t care about you anymore. They tell you they’re about to spray in three or four days and you’ve got to get your hives out.”
Three years ago Williams lost hundreds of beehives-a huge financial setback for him and his wife, Annie-in a Montana clover field after an aerial pesticide sprayer gave him no warning of the oncoming dousing. In California, law requires that sprayers give notice to beekeepers whose hives are at risk of being napalmed, but that doesn’t necessarily make life easy for people like Williams.
Williams owns several thousand colonies of honeybees, each hive containing 10,000 to 50,000 bees. The insects are his livelihood. He stores the humming boxes on private lands throughout Southern California for pollination services. However, Williams must stay on his toes and be ready to haul the bee boxes out of any given orchard at almost any given time if he wishes to spare his bees a shower of such chemical sprays as Agrimix, a commonly used pesticide that makes insects lethargic and suppresses any desire to eat. Ultimately, it will kill bees and other insects, like the Persea mite, which feeds on avocado leaves and flowers. “If you don’t move your bees, you’ll lose them and you’ve got no recourse, because [the farmer] warned you it was coming, even if you’re a thousand miles away when they tell you,” Williams said. “I’ve been up night and day for the past three days moving my boxes,” he said. “We’re traveling nonstop, and we get worn out.”
Williams is discouraged by general poor relations between farmers and beekeepers, and although he might like to participate in a boycott or organized protest, he and others in his line of work can’t afford to. The price of honey is so low, Williams said, that many beekeepers in the state today make their entire living from spring and summer hive rentals.
Numbers are hazy and the community is loosely knit, but Williams estimates that there are several hundred large-scale beekeepers in Southern California. Those who rent their hives out to avocado growers receive $30 to $50 per box throughout the spring bloom. Two to four boxes will accommodate a single acre of avocado trees, which occupy in total 63,000 acres of the state. The February almond blossom is the most lucrative opportunity of all for beekeepers, with hive rental rates going up to $150 and more for each bee box placed among the almond trees. Half a million acres of the state are planted in almond groves, and one to three hives per acre are required for sufficient pollination.
The Future of Bees and Ag
Despite the good money to be made in such circumstances, many beekeepers are leaving the business. Larry Rose, sales manager of Brokaw Nursery in Ventura, which grows several hundred acres of avocado and citrus groves, said that finding beekeepers willing to participate in pollination is growing more and more difficult. He attributes the decline in large part to the falling prices of U.S. honey, the overall lack of demand for avocado honey, and the competition presented by China, which exports millions of pounds of honey each year. “The guy who used to do our orchards just quit,” said Rose. “A lot of other guys are [quitting], too. Our owner is now managing the orchard himself with his own bees, and that’s been hard since he’s busy with other things all the time.”
There is also the new fear of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a little-understood, widely publicized syndrome that has spread across the nation in the past eight months from the East Coast, leaving beehives everywhere mysteriously vacant or filled with mite-ridden, dying bees. But Williams doesn’t feel that CCD is any mystery at all. “You’ve got all these scientists and professors getting research money to study the reasons for the collapse, but the obvious killer is the pesticide spraying and no one is questioning these applicators. It’s so political. The avocado guys need to get educated, but it’s crazy. They often spray right during the flower bloom, when the bees are on the trees. They just need to wait when the flowers are blooming.”
But Don Reeder, an avocado grower in Ventura County, argues that life is not that simple for most conventional farmers. “You need to remember that when the mites are in, it’s time to spray, and the earlier you do it, the better the odds are that you won’t have to come in and do it again later in the year. There’s a point in time when spraying will be too late,” he said.
There is one faction that wants beekeepers out of some areas entirely: seedless Clementine growers. In fact, some farms are actually seeking legislation that would make huge swaths of land “no fly zones” for bees. “[The controversy] is mostly out in the Central Valley,” said Bob Miller, a beekeeper near Monterey who owns 1,500 hives between Santa Clara County and Santa Barbara County. “Those guys basically want to eliminate bees from the entire area, because cross-pollination with other citrus fruits will produce a fruit with seeds.”
Still, Williams has observed some positive trends in the relationships between beekeepers and farmers-especially organic ones-and he believes that as the impact of CCD becomes more apparent in the agricultural community, more and more farmers will think about the crucial service beekeepers provide. “There are some great people who work with us,” Williams said, “people with small acreages and small orchards. It’s exciting to see more people out there excited about the bees. We’ve been at the bottom of the barrel for years, but now the avocado and almond guys are starting to realize that they really need us. People are getting worried, and they just need to realize it’s the spraying that’s killing us.”