After Massive Bee Kill, Beekeepers Want Answers From Fresno County

Capital Public Radio / News     By Julia Metric    May 16, 2017

Dead bees in Reedley, CA from colonies belonging to Rafael Reynaga. (Photo courtesy of Rafael Reynaga.) 

The Beekeeper

When Rafael Reynaga came to check on his bee colonies in a Fresno almond orchard, he found a carpet full of dead bees on the ground.

Reynaga picked up a hive and found two inches of bees at the bottom. He says most were dead, but a few were still moving.

Dead bees reek, Reynaga says, like a dead rat.

He's been working with bees since the 1980s but he says he'd never experienced a bee kill firsthand until this February.

He'd lent two hundred hives to his brother, fellow beekeeper Raul Reynaga. The latter had a pollination contract with an almond grower in Reedley on the east side of Fresno. 

He suspects his honeybees died from pesticide exposure.

“The bees act in a specific way when they are poisoned,” adds Reynaga. “They fly in circles close to the ground.”

Apiarist Rafael Reynaga checks bee colonies in Tulare County

To Reynaga these bee deaths point to a pesticide spray to blooming crops. But he says his hives went in before the almond bloom. The closest blooming crop were nectarines.

Reynaga filed a "Report of Loss” with the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office. He says it’s a big hit to his business - a $100,000 loss.

Protecting The Bees

Almond pollination is the busiest time of year for California’s commercial beekeepers. They scramble around the state as they move their colonies into orchards just ahead of the bloom.

Gene Brandi is president of the American Beekeeping Federation and a longtime beekeeper from Madera.

Brandi says he works with fifteen different growers across the state during pollination. It’s a logistical feat to move thousands of hives into place just before almond bloom while weather changes hour by hour. Keeping the bees healthy and safe is a huge priority.

During pollination, some beekeepers rely on a notification system to find out about pesticide applications close to their hives.

Here’s how the notification system works in Fresno County. Beekeepers can register the location of hives as they place them for pollination. It’s voluntary. The county pins those locations to a digital bee map.

This interactive map shows approximate bee locations in Fresno County. (Credit: County of Fresno)

Growers, or the pesticide applicators they work with, must file a "Notice of Intent" with the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner if they plan to apply anything toxic to bees according to the label. 

The county has 16 hours to check the spray location against the bee map and reply to the grower (or pesticide applicator) with contact details for anyone with registered hives within a one mile radius.

The last step: the grower (or pesticide applicator) is required to message registered beekeepers with a heads-up 48 hours ahead of the spray application.

Some beekeepers choose to register their hives and receive notification, but many do not, according to the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner's office. They say several beekeepers in the bee kill areas were not registered for February pollination.

Gene Brandi says he registers his hives with the county. It’s a valuable source of information.

But here’s the catch. Brandi says the notification system is not the main safeguard in protecting honeybees from pesticide exposure.

It’s the label.

The Label Is The Law

Just because a beekeeper gets a phone or email notification about a pesticide application does not mean they’ll move their bees out, explains Gene Brandi.

The bees are in the almond orchards to do a job - pollination. “We can’t move them out until it’s done,” says Brandi.

In California, protection for honey bees comes in the form of bee warnings on specific pesticide labels.  Carzol SP insecticide bee warning label

The label is the law. That means regardless of where hives are registered, growers (and pesticide applicators on staff) are required to follow the label’s language.

Brandi is confident growers, pesticide applicators, beekeepers and county ag officials all understand following the label to mean: only apply these pesticides at night, when honey bees are not working.

Brandi is counting on the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner to get to the bottom of what caused the bee kills in February. Regardless of the cause, he says, “This shouldn’t have happened.”

For Brandi, seeing pictures of Reynaga’s dead bees from Reedley brought back unwelcome memories of a bee kill his brother experienced decades ago.

“You can see it’s more than a claim,” says Brandi.

“It’s losses they have experienced. It’s real. And it’s a major negative economic impact on their businesses and on the growers, too. The growers are paying for good bees and they got these dead ones that aren’t going to pollinate one nut.”

Brandi says it’s key for the entire agriculture community to follow best practices so bees are protected while crops get treated.

The Almond Board of California adopted best management practices in 2014. Those include not applying insecticides during bloom and ensuring fungicides are applied late in the day and into the evening when bees are not out collecting pollen.

“Many growers have adopted these practices, but there are still quite a few that have not. They don’t have to. It’s strictly advisory,” explains Brandi.

Earlier this spring Brandi had a meeting at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC. Brandi urged them to take a closer look at the impact of popular tank mixes on the health of honey bee colonies and consider bee warning labels for them.

(A tank mix is a cocktail of pesticides in single tank.) 

"After all, tank mixes are what our bees 'see' in the field, not just individual pesticides," says Brandi. 

Brandi argues that even if a tank mix doesn't kill adult bees outright, it may impact the brood and hurt the bee colony longterm. 

According to Brandi, the acting head of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs said the agency would look into tank mixes later this year.

The Investigation

There were several clusters of bee kills in Fresno this winter. They happened on the east side of Fresno County in Sanger and Reedley, where Rafael Reynaga’s colonies were.

The other area is Kerman, on the west side of the county, where loss reports from several beekeepers total in the ballpark of $2 million.

Tom Ullmann works for the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office and he’s investigating the Kerman incident. On a tour of the Kerman area, he points out one spot where honeybee colonies got hit, between two vast almond orchards.

Tom Ullmann works for the Fresno County Department of Agriculture

The county collected bee bodies and swabs from outside the hives at this site and sent them to a lab at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation

As part of the investigation, Ullmann’s examined pesticide use reports in Kerman for the days leading up to the bee kill.

“So far, there’s nothing we’ve found that has been done that is in violation of any regulatory requirements according to the label,” says Ullmann.

In other words, pesticide applications were reportedly completed by midnight.

But the preliminary finding leaves bee broker Joe Traynor doubtful.

“I can’t totally blame the county,” Traynor says, “but they depend on use reports and those are only as good as the honesty of the guy that signs them, saying what he put on and what time of day he put it on. Anybody can fudge a use report.”

Traynor’s been wrangling bees for 50 years.

Think of the bee broker as the middleman for pollination. They gather bee hives from various beekeepers to fill contracts with growers. The bee broker gets a cut from both parties.

Traynor was the one who brought Rafael Reynaga’s hives to Reedley. Bee colonies Traynor put in Kerman also got hit. And, he says, bees he placed for pollination in Sanger orchards were hit even worse.

 Bee broker Joe Traynor, left, and beekeeper Rafael Reynaga in Tulare County.

To Traynor, the volume of dead bees and their location suggest exposure to a pesticide – the kind with a bee warning on the label. He suspects a spray was applied into the early morning hours.

Stace Leoni is Fresno County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner and she’s leading the bee kill investigation.

Leoni concedes that pesticide use reports, filed after the application occurs, rely on an honor system. But she doesn’t find it credible that pesticide applicators would intentionally break the rules.

“Why would you want to spend money on a product and apply it if it wasn’t going to work? Or do it at the wrong time or use too much?” asks Leoni.

In his search for answers, Traynor’s focused on the timing of the bee kill and what was going on nearby. He placed the hives in almond orchards before bloom, so there was no forage.

“But bees will visit nearby orchards up to two or three miles away to find bloom,” Traynor explains. He points to nearby blooming nectarines.

The county’s bee lab results are not yet available. But USDA lab reports show several insecticides in bee bodies and bee pollen from Kerman. One of them is Carzol. It’s commonly used by nectarine growers to control an insect called thrips. 

In both bee kill areas there are nectarines within three miles of almonds.

Leoni says the county’s preliminary finding is that a Carzol application to nearby nectarines was completed by midnight.

The county has come under vocal criticism from bee brokers, including Traynor, who say the county must do more to enforce night-time sprays for pesticides with bee warning labels.

“A lot of statements are being made that we don't care or that we're not turning over every stone to figure this out. That’s just not true,” Leoni says.

Leoni insists the county is looking into every possible cause of the February bee deaths. And she says the investigation takes time.

“We're doing the very best we can do because we don't want it to happen again,” explains Leoni.

“But we don't go out in the beginning with accusations. We ask questions. The whole point is to stay objective and try to figure out what happened.”

Leoni says it’s too early to say what lessons could come out of the bee kill. But she concedes that “some materials that are registered may need to be looked at again as far as their toxicity to bees.”

“It could be that the window (for spraying) has to be even shorter in the evening, that you have to finish six hours before the next time bees actively visit. Or maybe a lower dosage. I don’t know,” Leoni says.

Regenerating The Bee Colonies

Rafael Reynaga stands on a grassy mound nestled along the Fresno foothills. The fragrance of citrus blossom filters through the air. 

Citrus trees in Fresno County

This idyllic bee yard is where he brought his hives after the bee kill in Reedley. 

Reynaga cleaned out the stricken hives with bleach to remove possible contamination from dead bee bodies. Then he added brood from healthy colonies and a queen cell for each colony.

He put the bee boxes in their own spot where there’s plenty of forage from citrus bloom. It's like a bee sanctuary.

“I put them where they can thrive. Now, only time will tell,” says Reynaga as he looks out over the hives.

“I’m not going to make honey with these bees – they are just recovering. But at least I can rebuild the hive and put this thing behind me.”

Reynaga doubts he’ll put his bees in the Fresno County bee kill areas for almond pollination next year. “Even if I don’t put bees there again, I want this to stop,” says Reynaga.

“Because in the future, I don’t want this to happen to anybody else or me, down the road, in another place.”

At least six different beekeepers (or bee brokers) claimed losses of an estimated 8,000 bee hives in Fresno County.

Despite what happened in February, you can see from the green fuzzy nuts on almond trees that Fresno’s almond orchards were pollinated.

The county investigation is ongoing. It could be six months to a year before they issue a final report. 

Green nuts on almond trees in Fresno County



Almond Pollination Update

By Joe Traynor, Scientific Ag Company   10/30/13
Looking for (REAL) Late-Blooming Soft-Shells

Robust almond prices have caused a surge in new acreage.  Almost all new current plantings are soft-shell varieties due to the price gap between soft and hard-shells -- now 50 cents/lb and growing.  The major China and India markets purchase in-shell almonds and either sell them in-shell (often for gifts) or use cheap labor to punch out the kernels – easily done with soft-shells, difficult with hard-shells. Growing hard-shells is still profitable at current prices, but...

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Almond Growers Pay Record Prices Amid Bee Shortages

(The following is brought to us by the American Bee Journal.)

                           The Bakersfield Californian  By John Cox  2/19/13

By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

From left, bee keeper Bill Mathewson, farm manager Jose Gomez, and almond farmer Richard Enns check the health of some bee hives that within a few days will be busy pollinating Enns' orchards as the trees begin to bloom. Enns says he spends $100,000 on bees to pollinate his almonds. 



With Kern County's almond bloom expected to get under way this week, Geordy Wise sure is glad he lined up his bees last fall instead of waiting. The Shafter and Wasco-area orchard manager said he ended up paying between $150 and $185 per hive -- high prices, to be sure. But they're well below the $200 to $225 others are reportedly shelling out lately amid a nationwide bee shortage.

This year's almond pollination may well set records, not only in terms of hive prices but also for bee colony losses that have claimed 40 percent of some beekeepers' stocks, and in some cases much more.

Commercial beekeepers say a combination of factors is to blame: disease, a harsh winter, drought in much of the United States and government restrictions on a popular mite treatment, not to mention increasing demand by California's expanding almond industry.

"It's the worst year I've ever seen, really, in about 30 years, as bee losses go," said Joe Traynor, a widely respected bee broker in Bakersfield.

The upshot is that large growers of almonds are having to make do with fewer hives, while beekeepers focus on rebuilding their bee populations.

Bees have been a source of concern around the world for years. A mysterious ailment called colony collapse disorder began devastating bee populations in 2006. How much the disorder contributed to this year's losses is unclear.

Some almond growers wonder whether the concerns -- and the hive prices -- have been overblown. They emphasize that yearly ups and downs will always be part of working in agriculture.

"I think it's like anything, like the farming," Wise said. "What you put into it is what you're going to get out of it. I think there's better beekeepers than others."

Bad year for bees

Beekeepers say this year was different in several ways. About half the bees needed to pollinate California's almond bloom come from outside the state, including places struggling with a drought that has reduced forage and weakened bees.

Also, a popular mite treatment was taken off the market last year, leaving many beekeepers without a viable alternative for warding off insects responsible for spreading viruses among bees.

Jeff Vicknell, who sells bee medical treatments and nutritional supplements out of a warehouse off Weedpatch Highway, said he has watched beekeepers struggle this year with severely malnourished and sick colonies. This year more than in years past, he said, beekeepers are paying dearly to keep their bees healthy -- sometimes to no avail.

"These are people that know what they're doing, that have been in the business all their life, and now there's no hope," he said.

Montana beekeeper Bill Dahle said he lost 10,000 colonies over the past year, leaving him with only 3,000. He reckons it's his worst year in three decades.

Nevertheless, he and his son made their annual trip to Kern County in hopes of salvaging some of their investment and earning money to reinvest in new colonies.

"We'll be back again strong as ever," he said stoically. "It's just one of those glitches."

The situation has obvious implications for California's thriving almond industry, which in 2011 sold product valued at nearly $3.5 billion.

Statewide, productive almond acreage grew by an estimated 22,832 acres last year, or 3 percent, and was on track to increase at almost the same rate this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The Almond Board of California has been monitoring the bee situation and, since 1995, invested $1.4 million in honeybee health research. It has also encouraged growers to set aside land for hungry bees to forage.

"We need a chain of food and forage for these bees all the way through the year," said Bob Curtis, the almond board's associate director of ag affairs.

Paramount Farms, one of Kern County's leading ag producers, contracted some 92,000 bee hives to pollinate its 46,000 almond acres this year.

It's not as many bees as the company would like, but with Paramount's focus on working closely with beekeepers to ensure strong colonies, company bee biologist Gordon Wardell said it will suffice.

He likened Paramount's balancing act to having too little icing for a big cake.

"What you do is you just spread the icing a little bit thinner around it. And that's what we're doing with the bees," he said.

Wardell said that part of the reason hive prices have risen so sharply this year is that last year there was an excess of bees that lowered costs for growers who signed pollination contracts late in the season.

"These same growers this year thought they'd wait till the very end to get bees again, and there was a shortfall of bees," he said.

Now, he added, "they're being gouged, if you want to call it that. ... They're panicking."

Whether the hold-outs will have much selection this year is hard to say. But anecdotal indications aren't good.

The secretary-treasurer of the California State Beekeepers Association, Carlen Jupe, recalled a telling moment at the Delta Bee Club meeting Feb. 5 in Oakdale.

The 90 people present, most of them commercial beekeepers, were asked who had extra bees beyond what they had already contracted to growers this season.

"Nobody raised their hand," Jupe said.

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Apis Newsletter - January 2013

The January 2013 Apis Newsletter by Malcolm T. Sanford is available online.

Some of the topics in this month's issue: The Canadian Pollination Initiative, Joe Traynor, and his yearly communications to beekeepers interested in the upcoming pollination season in California and how climate change is likely to affect California Agriculture, carbon tax, studies on the carbon footprint of various agricultural activities including beekeeping, the latest from the Extension Bee Health site, and much, much more. 

Dr. Sanford states that the most alarming news in this host of saved/sent of articles is the following:

"Large old trees are critical in many natural and human-dominated environments.  Studies of ecosystems around the world suggest populations of these trees are declining rapidly," he and colleagues Professor Bill Laurance of James Cook University, Australia, and Professor Jerry Franklin of Washington University, USA, say in their Science report.

"Research is urgently needed to identify the causes of rapid losses of large old trees and strategies for improved management. Without… policy changes, large old trees will diminish or disappear in many ecosystems, leading to losses of their associated biota and ecosystem functions."

To learn more read and subscribe to Dr. Sanford's Apis Newsletter: