Drought is Driving Beekeepers and Their Hives From California

 NPR Radio   Ezra David Romero   September 29, 2015

ABF President Tim Tucker and ABF Vice President Gene Brandi were on NPR this morning.

The drought in California over the past four years has hit the agriculture industry hard, especially one of the smallest farm creatures: honeybees. A lack of crops for bees to pollinate has California's beekeeping industry on edge.

Gene Brandi is one of those beekeepers. He has a colony of bees near a field of blooming alfalfa just outside the Central California town of Los Banos. He uses smoke from a canister of burning burlap to calm the bees.

"It evokes a natural reaction, as if there were really a fire. And smoke helps to mask the pheromones that they communicate with," Brandi explains.

Brandi has worked with bees since the early '70s. He has more than 2,000 hives across the state, with around 30,000 bees in each one.

"I'm going to pull out this next frame here," says Brandi, showing me some of his hives. "Looking for the queen again — there she is. She's still laying eggs."

The lack of rain and snow has reduced the amount of plants the bees feed on, which in turn limits the amount of pollen and nectar that bees collect. Normally, there are crops and wildflowers blooming here at any given time. This year in the state, there are just not enough plants and trees in bloom to keep many commercial beekeepers profitable.

But Brandi is managing to keep his head above water by strategically placing his bees in the few spots where there are both crops and water.

A well pumps water into a canal on this farm. Thistle blooms on the banks. Nearby, cotton and alfalfa crops are growing. It's enough to keep his bees happy. But fallow farmland surrounds the area.

"In the drought years we just don't make as much honey," says Brandi. "I mean, we're very thankful that we have places like this, where the bees have made some honey this summer."

Brandi says because of the lack of natural food for the honeybees, many beekeepers have to feed their colonies processed bee food, which is a mixture of pollen and oil. They're also feeding the bees a honey substitute made of sugar syrup.

"If there's not adequate feed, we need to supply it. Otherwise, they're not going to make it, they're going to die," Brandi says.

The quality of these meal substitutes isn't as good as the real deal. They're expensive, and it's like eating fresh versus canned vegetables. Beekeepers are also supplying bees with water.

Tim Tucker, president of the American Beekeeping Federation, says the expense in providing food and drink to the bees is causing more beekeepers to take their bees out of California and into other states.

"Commercial beekeepers are having difficult times keeping bees alive, and they're kind of spread out," Tucker says. "They're going to Montana and they're going to North Dakota."

That raises concerns among farmers who rely on those bees to pollinate the 400-plus crops grown in California's Central Valley. It's especially important to have them here in the spring, when the region's 900,000-plus acres of almonds bloom.

"They're scrambling, trying to figure out as many options as possible to make sure their bees stay healthy and are prepared for next year," says Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "That includes trying to move to newer areas and trying to plant new feed sources."

Jacobsen also notes that this drought is really the second punch to the beekeeping industry in the past 10 years. Each winter, as much as 40 percent of the honeybees in the West disappear due to the unexplained colony collapse disorder.

The expense of moving bees and the fear of weakening colonies are reasons why beekeepers like Gene Brandi have taken the risk of not sending their bees out of state.

"Bees are like cattle, in the sense that the pasture can be overcrowded. And even though we have less forage then normal, it's still more forage than other parts of the state," says Brandi.

And just like every other farmer in the region, Brandi and his beekeeping counterparts say rain and snow are the only true answer to reviving the California beekeeping industry.

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/29/442670602/drought-is-driving-beekeepers-and-their-hives-from-california

Pollinator Politics: Environmentalists Criticize Obama's Plan To Save Bees

NPR/THE SALT    By Allison Aubrey  May 20, 2015

LISTEN TO THE STORY: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/05/20/408017267/pollinator-politics-environmentalists-criticize-obama-plan-to-save-bees

The buzz around bees has been bad lately. As we've reported, beekeepers say they lost 42 percent of honeybee colonies last summer.

And it seems that fixing what ails bees is no simple task. Over the past few decades, they've been hit by diseases and habitat loss. There's also increasing evidence that a type of pesticides called neonicotinoids are linked to bees' decline, too.

This could be bad news for all of us, since bees and other pollinators are critical to our food supply.

Honeybees alone, according to an Obama administration estimate, add $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year by pollinating everything from almonds and apples to blueberries and squash.

And now the administration has put forth a new action plan to reverse the declines in bees.

A key component is a strategy to restore 7 million acres of bee-friendly habitat that have been lost to urbanization, development and farming.

"It's a big step in the right direction," says Nigel Raine, a professor who studies pollinator conservation at the University of Guelph, in Canada.

The idea is to plant many types of wildflowers — in lots of different areas — so that bees have more places to forage and nest. "It's making sure they have sufficient flowers to feed on," says Raine — and places to live.

Many environmentalists say restoring bee habitat is a good place to start, but they're critical that the Obama administration has not taken a harder line in limiting the use of neonicotinoids.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says more urgent action is needed to safeguard our food supply. "To truly save bees and other pollinators, we must drastically cut down on today's pervasive use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides," Peter Lehner, executive director of the NRDC, said in a press release.

And a similar message is coming from Friends of the Earth. The White House Pollinator Strategy won't solve the bee crisis, the group says.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced in April that it is not likely to approve new uses of neonicotinoids, but the plan announced by the administration on Tuesday did not call for restrictions on current uses.

Lisa Archer, who leads the food and technology program at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement: "President Obama's National Pollinator Health Strategy misses the mark by not adequately addressing the pesticides as a key driver of unsustainable losses of bees and other pollinators essential to our food system."

The European Union has already moved to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. And as we've reported, there are proposals in Canada to limit use of the pesticides, too.

But a leading manufacturer of the pesticides says neonic restrictions are not necessary. "Neonicotinoids — when used according to labeled directions — can be used safely with pollinators," Becky Langer of Bayer Crop Science told us.

She says the administration's strategy to restore bee-friendly habitat is a good approach, and points out that Bayer is helping to address this issue with its Bee Care Center and efforts to encourage the expansion of habitat.

Read at & Listen: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/05/20/408017267/pollinator-politics-environmentalists-criticize-obama-plan-to-save-bees

The Pollinators: A Film by Sarah Rara

THE POLLINATORS: A Film by Sarah Rara

Made in LA at the Hammer Museum
June 15 - Sept 27

Excited to announce a new video installation "The Pollinators" on view as part of the Made in LA biennial at the Hammer Museum.

The Pollinators focuses on the insects, birds, animals, and vectors that pollinate flowers. Filmed against brightly colored backgrounds that both attract and distract pollinators, the video explores wild color spaces, modeling the ultraviolet-rich color range perceived by insects that extends beyond human vision and the RGB colorspace of video.

To hear KCRW's 8/23/2014 radio interview with artist Sarah Rara as she talks about her film, The Pollinators, go to:
 http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/good-food/the-best-restaurants-in-america-pizza-box-design-the-secret-world-of-bees (then scroll down to The Pollinator).

Beekeepers File Lawsuit Against EPA Over Pesticides

NPR 89.3 KPCC   By Wendy Lee  3/23/13   Listen Now at 89.3 KPCC...

Beekeepers are upset about the declining honeybee population and some of them are blaming two pesticides approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Four beekeepers and five consumer and environmental groups, filed a lawsuit Thursday against EPA officials in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The groups say the EPA ignored their warnings that the two pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam led to the deaths of bees.

“America’s beekeepers cannot survive for long with the toxic environment EPA has supported,” said Steve Ellis, who is the owner of Old Mill Honey Co., which operates in California and Minnesota.
“Bee-toxic pesticides in dozens of widely used products, on top of many other stresses our industry faces, are killing our bees and threatening our livelihoods,” he said in a statement.

Ellis joined three other beekeepers that have participated in the lawsuit from New York, Colorado and Florida. The groups involved in the suit are Beyond PesticidesCenter for Food SafetyPesticide Action Network North America,Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Health

The Center for Food Safety, a Washington DC-based nonprofit, said the two pesticides became popular in the mid-2000s, around the same time large numbers of bee colonies collapsed. This year, some beekeepers were concernedabout whether the bee deaths would impact this year’s almond crop, which is California’s top agricultural export.

The groups want the EPA to stop the use of the two pesticides and work on creating better labels on how to use those products. They also said the EPA should examine the impact the two pesticides have on endangered or threatened species.

The two pesticides are absorbed by the plants and transported through the plant’s tissue, the Center for Food Safety said. The group of beekeepers and organizations said in their lawsuit that bees have died after being exposed to pesticide-contaminated dust during corn planting season.

The EPA did not return KPCC's request for comment.

Honeybees pollinate about one-third of what humans eat, from almonds to apples. 

NPR 89.3 KPCC Beekeepers File Lawsuit

Honey, It's Electric: Bees Sense Charge On Flowers

NPR  By Adam Cole   2/22/13 (Listen to broadcast and view amazing images.)

Flowers are nature's ad men. They'll do anything to attract the attention of the pollinators that help them reproduce. That means spending precious energy on bright pigments, enticing fragrances and dazzling patterns.

Now, scientists have found another element that contributes to flowers' brand: their distinct electric field.

Bumblebee Vision

Flowers taylor their displays toward the sensory capabilities of their pollinators. Bees can see visible and ultraviolet light, they have precise olfactory receptors, and now we know they can also detect electric fields.

Anne Leonard, who studies bees at the University of Nevada, says our understanding of pollinator-flower communication has been expanding for decades.

"Flowers do a lot of things you might not expect," Leonard says. "We observe they have these distinct bright, beautiful colors, patterns, scents."

But we don't often stop to consider that this incredible display is all an attempt to attract bees and other pollinators. These displays don't just consist of things humans notice. There are also patterns in the ultraviolet spectrum, petal temperatures and textures and shapes.

"We've found that by producing these combinations of sensory stimuli, the plant basically makes its flowers easier for the bee to learn and remember," Leonard says.

That means the bee can forage more efficiently, and flowers are more likely to be pollinated.

"This is a magnificent interaction where you have an animal and a plant, and they both want this to go as well as possible," says Gregory Sutton of the University of Bristol in the U.K. "The flowers are trying to make themselves look as different as possible. This is to establish the flower's brand."

Sutton and a team of researchers led by Daniel Robert have just uncovered a whole new layer to flower brands.

"We found that flowers can use electric fields," Sutton says.

That's right — electric fields. It turns out flowers have a slight negative charge relative to the air around them. Bumblebees have a charge, too.

"When bees are flying through the air, just the friction of the air and the friction of the body parts on one another causes the bee to become positively charged," Sutton says.

It's like shuffling across a carpet in wool socks. When a positively charged bee lands on a flower, the negatively charged pollen grains naturally stick to it. The Bristol team wondered if bees were aware of this electrostatic interaction.

So, they designed an experiment — one described in this week's Science magazine. The researchers built a small arena full of fake flowers. Each flower was simple — a stalk with a small steel dish at the top. Half of the "flowers" held delicious sugar water. The other half held quinine, a substance that bees find bitter and disgusting.

When bumblebees explored this false flower patch, they moved around randomly. They chose to land on sweet flowers just about as often as bitter flowers.

But when the sweet flowers carried a small charge, the bees learned pretty quickly to choose the charged flowers. And when the electric charge was removed? They went back to their random foraging.

The bees had recognized the electric field, and had learned to use it to find sweet flowers. But that's not all.

"In the seconds just before the bee lands, there is electrical activity in the plant," Sutton says.

The plant's electric field is changed by the proximity of that positively charged bee. And once the bee leaves, the field stays changed for 100 seconds or so. That's long enough for the altered field to serve as a warning for the next bee that buzzes by. She won't stop to investigate a flower that's already been visited.