Why half of San Diego’s bees are gone

The success of California farms is at risk

Bee pollinating a dandelion
  • Bee pollinating a dandelion

Basta! Enough talk about the potential departure of a greedy billionaire’s professional football team. Let’s talk about something important: relentless departure of bees. Mother Nature has walloped us with her version of The Sting: bee disappearance. It’s taking a bite out of agriculture, particularly in California, including San Diego.

Thirty percent of the food we eat depends on pollination by bees. They travel from bloom to bloom, feeding. As they travel, they spread pollen containing male sex cells. This enables the plants to produce fruit.

The good news is that this year, El Niño could slow down or even reverse the bee losses, says Alan Mikolich, one of 10 to 15 commercial beekeepers in the county, by his estimate. Mikolich says beekeepers have thrived in past El Niño years, although some worry that if El Niño brings too much rain and cold, the recalcitrant bees may refuse to fly.

He says there are thousands of bee hobbyists in San Diego County. Most of them use the bees for honey production. San Diego is the third-largest county in the nation for honey production, according to the San Diego Farm Bureau. All told, there are 25,000 to 30,000 hives in the county.

The commercial beekeepers rent their hives for $165 to $215 each to California growers of sunflowers, apples, cherries, almonds, melons, cucumbers, kiwis, and avocados. (California produces 90 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States, and San Diego County produces half the state’s output.) Bees also pollinate broccoli, fruit trees, onion, and seed crops within the county.

Beekeepers, including many in San Diego County, transport their hives from farm to farm. Of the San Diego commercial beekeepers, “Almost all try to get their bees to the Central Valley almond crops,” says Steve Gibbs of the San Diego Beekeeping Society. Almond growing is completely dependent on pollination. The income from almonds “has kept [San Diego County beekeepers] from folding during the drought years.” Local beekeepers also “send some to Imperial Valley during summer months for alfalfa pollination.”

California produces one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts. The state produces more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and 70 percent of them are exported.

In the past half-century, the United States bee population has plunged by 50 percent. There is normally attrition in the winter months, but since 2006, the bee population has sunk by around 33 percent a year — about double the normal loss. The beekeepers add bees every year to make up for the loss, says Mikolich, remarking that San Diego beekeepers’ annual losses are about the same as the national rate. “Some people lost 35 to 40 percent” in San Diego County last year, he says. “I had an 80 percent loss.”

A major villain is called colony collapse disorder. The majority of worker bees in a colony can’t be found, dead or alive. The queen bee stays, along with immature bees and nurse bees that take care of the small band that remain. Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disorder.

Varroa mite

Varroa mite

Varroa destructor on bee larva

Varroa destructor on bee larva

Varroa mites on pupa

Varroa mites on pupa

The eight-legged Varroa mite (also known by its Latin name, Varroa destructor) is the big killer in San Diego County, says Mikolich. These mites are parasites that attach themselves to bees’ bodies, weakening them. A major Varroa mite infestation can kill off a bee colony.

Malnutrition, genetic factors, and pesticides are other causes of bee disappearance. Beekeeper practices play a role: for instance, the transportation of hives from one farm to another may be responsible for attrition.

“We have not had any reports of colony collapse in San Diego County,” says Travis Elder, deputy agricultural commissioner, San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. “All hive losses to this point have been from other traceable environmental factors, such as starvation, Varroa mites, disease, foulbrood [bacterial disease of larvae], hive beetle, wax moth [which feed on bees’ honeycomb wax], or pesticides.”

San Diego County honey receipts plunged from $971,000 in 2013 to $151,000 the following year. But the value of pollination services almost doubled from $1.2 million to $2.1 million over the same period. Elder expects honey production to continue downward and pollination services to keep going up because of drought conditions last year.

The bee-population plunge has economic implications. Because of the plummeting bee population, farmers renting hives from beekeepers have to pay around 20 percent more than usual. That can hurt, because crop production dropped in the drought. The shortage of almonds drove prices up to around $4.70 a pound.

Now almond growers face the same problems other American exporters face: economic turmoil overseas and a dollar that is too strong against other currencies. Demand has dropped in the troubled Middle East and China. Some importers in those areas are refusing to accept almonds that they contracted to purchase. The almond price dropped to around $2.60 a pound recently.

Thus far, we have discussed domesticated bees. Wild bees play an important role in pollination, too. A recent University of Vermont study indicated there has been a drastic decline in wild bees. Fortunately, “San Diego has a relatively higher wild bee abundance on croplands,” says Insu Koh, who spearheaded the research. By contrast, Imperial County “has very large pollinator-dependent croplands, but wild bee abundance is relatively low.” Imperial is one of the United States counties with a marked wild-bee deficiency, he says.

In mid-2014, the federal government launched a program to save the bees. The White House said that “pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than $15 billion through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diet.” The number of managed honey bee colonies in America plunged from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million in 2014, said the government.

Last September, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved new rules for unincorporated areas to bolster local beekeeping. The new ordinance permits beekeepers to place their hives closer to roads and neighbors than previous rules permitted.

As Elder explains, the beekeeper with 1 or 2 hives can keep them only 25 feet from a roadway, 25 feet from a property line, and 35 feet from a neighbor’s house.

“With 3 to 20 hives, the distances are 50 feet from a roadway, 50 feet from a property line, and 100 feet from a neighboring dwelling,” he says. For 21 or more hives, the distances are 100 feet from a roadway and 300 feet from a neighboring dwelling.

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"California produces one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts."

Well, a lot of people are not going to argue with that.

Ponzi: It may have been H.L. Mencken who said that God tilted the world on its axis, and all the nuts rolled into California. Best, Don Bauder

Mike Murphy: High rent? I don't get it. Best, Don Bauder

Tim Ryland: At first glance, it appears the Washington Post article is refuting what has been written about bee disappearance in the last decade or so. Upon carefully reading it, however, I would say the author is "pooh-poohing" much of the conventional wisdom on recent bee disappearance, rather than refuting the whole thesis. Best, Don Bauder

Mr. Bauder, Mr. Ryland's right, you're wrong. The link within the article to the working paper is the real story, the WashPost writer was just adding his own little cheekiness. In short, beekeepers found ways to manage. The collapse disorder still hasn't been found here, as the guy from the county ag department stated clearly that other factors have been at work. Also, your figure showing the drop from 1942 to present day is potentially misleading -- you rely on the raw "number" of colonies, not the size of colonies and number of bees -- not to mention that we farm less land and more efficiently (for better or worse) than we did in the 1940s, and ag in general has consolidated.

Imperial County probably has fewer wild bees because nothing grew there until it was irrigated.

A few years ago I had to deal with a writer who insisted on repeating unfounded accusations that cell phone towers were killing the bees. It was painful stuff. There are other conspiracy types out there about this, but in the end, all your article is really telling me is that the costs of honeybee-keeping and honey production have gone up, in part because of a national phenomenon that hasn't affected San Diego County's bees. Heck, I'd like to see international figures on this -- it's not like the U.S. is the only country that needs bees.

In short, you suggest colony collapse disorder is to blame, then further in your article an official states quite clearly that's not the case. This puts this piece on the same level as articles about vaccinations retarding kids. But at least you didn't quote Mike Aguirre, for once.

petezanko: I say that colony collapse disorder may be the problem nationally, but it doesn't appear to be in San Diego County.

I don't agree with your analysis, but I do welcome you back to the blog. Best, Don Bauder

Sharon Reeve: Yes, the pesticide you mention gets much of the blame in research materials I went over. Best, Don Bauder

Thanks for this good article on a very complex issue, Don. I would like to mention that the documentary "More Than Honey" from 2012 is very much worth watching.

The world is definitely not out of the woods yet with regard to the collapse of hives.

In Hawaii, it has been noticed that a native species on the Big Island that dwells in cliffs of volcanic rock has been affected by a nearby cell phone tower--so that the bees get disoriented and end up drowning.

There are many reasons that bee colonies are struggling, and those who think the problem has been solved should realize how interdependent life is.

eastlaker: See above. Petezanko seems to think that the cell phone explanation is quackery. Best, Don Bauder

Don, petezanko is welcome to think as he wishes, but I doubt he is the final arbiter on this, or any other subject. I am also not the final arbiter, but when people see things, it is important to take note. I just have to wonder at all those whose ferocity to disclaim seems to far outstrip any such need.

eastlaker: There are some with great "ferocity to disclaim" who post on this blog site. Best, Don Bauder

Don - I killed them and I've felt guilty ever since. A huge bee colony made their home in a hollow part of my big old pepper tree fifteen feet from my backdoor. I had them poison bombed and he filled in the hole. A year or two later I watched a huge swarm of hundreds cross my yard and funnel themselves into the same tree through another hole. I had them exterminated again. I was afraid of reports that the Africanized bees were commingling and had attacked and even killed people (Lakeside or Ramona ?) and found their way to the city.

shirleyberan: Clearly, your conscience is roiling over your action. I have a solution. Every day, recite, "To bee, or not to bee." Best, Don Bauder

The day the congregation collectively covered the sky over my back yard space there were thousands not hundreds. I called the police because I thought someone could die if they didn't see that coming but they stopped at my house. Nothing the cops could do so I hired the insect man again to choke out the queen and her worker bees. Sad.

shirleyberan: Don't be the one to die over this. Best, Don Bauder

Next time, get an entomologist or a beekeeper, not an exterminator.

Flapper: An entomologist would want to study your bee problem. A beekeeper might try to figure out how he could purloin the hive for himself. Best, Don Bauder

Better to purloin than to kill. Better bee'd than deed?

shirleyberan: You may be the champ in this round. Best, Don Bauder

Flapper: Better to purloin sirloin than bee bitten. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: Touche! Best, Don Bauder

Flapper - Are you going to pay that bill?

shirleyberan: He made no such promises. Best, Don Bauder

Some beekeepers (five e's--is that a record?) will take the bees and not charge. Academic entomologists may or may not, depending upon the circumstances, and what kind of grant they have.

In any case, the penalty for hiring someone to kill them should be getting swindled by a thousand stings.

Hey, this is gender-neutral.

Flapper: Beekeeper a record? How about this one, from one of my high school English teachers: "And after all that, that that that that that signified, was not the one to which I was referring." Best, Don Bauder

Or they should know to include bee breeding homes in the cost of farming. No free rent here.

shirleyberan: No free-bees? Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: Good idea. I think we have exhausted this one. Why? Just bee-cause. Best, Don Bauder

Don - on the label of my Y.S. Eco Bee Farms (life reproduction energy, carefully captured and preserved) Organic Bee Pollen contains multi-vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, bioflavaloids, phytosterols, amino acids, fatty acids, enzyms and more. Says natures most balanced wholefood.

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