VISALIA, Calif. — After two years of meetings, negotiations, occasional harsh words, proposed compromises and evaluated comments, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has formalized regulations regarding bees and citrus.
Neither side, grower-shippers nor beekeepers, is ecstatic.
“It’s a paper decision that does not bring a resolution to the problem,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.
At the core of the dispute is cross pollination between seeded and seedless varieties. Seedless mandarins tend to grow seeds when bees visit both varieties.
The regulations require beekeepers in four major citrus growing counties, Fresno, Kern, Madera and Tulare, to register the locations of hives annually by March 1, about two months before the citrus bloom. Mandarin growers who are concerned that hives are too close to groves can ask beekeepers to relocate the hives.
If the two parties cannot reach a compromise, either side may ask the county agricultural commissioner to intervene, but the commissioner’s ultimate recommendation is not binding.
“To me, the state didn’t want any part of it,” said Woody DeHaven, owner of DeHaven Apiaries, Visalia, and a California beekeeper for three decades. “The only way they could figure out how to get out of it was to do little or nothing.”
The registration requirement, he said, is not new at DeHaven Apiaries and is in the best interests of the bee industry. Owners of registered hives are alerted in advance when nearby growers are about to apply chemicals. On those rare occasions when DeHaven concluded the spraying could endanger his bees, he has moved the hives temporarily.
“I’ve always registered,” DeHaven said. “All I did was just move up my registration date.”
Larger citrus growers use nets to keep bees out of their seedless groves. That might not be financially viable, however, for some growers.
“As a result, the small family farmer will have more seeds in the fruit, and that fruit is going to sell for a lower price than the seedless fruit,” Nelsen said.
The netting, which covers trees from the ground up, and the labor to put it in place costs about $800 per acre, if it lasts four seasons, according to grower-shippers. Beekeepers are not unsympathetic, but view the issue differently
“In any business, you buy insurance to protect yourself,” DeHaven said.
The genesis of the seedless citrus controversy was the 1998 California freeze. Offshore-grown mandarins filled the market gap left vacant by California’s freeze damaged navel oranges. The instant popularity of the fruit spurred California growers to plant more mandarin varieties.
Bearing acreage for those varieties was 8,600 acres in 1998, according to the Department of Food and Agriculture. By 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, the acreage had skyrocketed to 16,000 — and growing.
Another concern among citrus growers are out-of-state hives.
“We would have taken care of the California beekeeper, but it’s the additional 500,000 hives that come in here to pollinate that don’t leave,” Nelsen said.
DeHaven agreed that the out-of-state issue has caused troubles for his industry. The hives do not create the predicament, he said, but out-of-state beekeepers do.
“The biggest problem we have with out-of-staters is they come in and set down on property without permission,” DeHaven said.
Out-of-state bees are necessary to fill contracts with almond growers, because California does not have enough bees to pollinate the nut crop, he said. The problem comes after the February almond bloom. Because of cold weather in home states such as South Dakota and Montana, the beekeepers linger in California until May when the apple bloom begins in Washington, DeHaven said.
The bees also help with California’s late February-early March plum bloom, a commodity that DeHaven’s bees have pollinated for many years, he said. The pomegranate bloom follows plums. While the fruit does not require bees, they help pollinate the crop, DeHaven said.
In recent years, University of California researchers have released new seedless mandarin varieties that tend to be unaffected by cross pollination.
“As more of these unseeded varieties are developed, I think we’ll see an end to the controversy,” DeHaven said.