Bee keepers vs. orange growers in Ag dust-up

In what some involved are calling a “new range war,” orange growers are facing off against beekeepers.

The orange growers say they’re losing a third of their crops when their “seedless” varieties of oranges are pollinated by bees and grow seeds. The beekeepers contend the orange growers are trying to unreasonably bar them from large sections of the Central Valley’s most fertile land.

Freshman Assemblyman Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, attempted to end this dispute by introducing AB 771. The Seedless Mandarin and Honeybee Coexistence Working Group Act would create a body under the secretary of agriculture to mediate this dispute and create a set of best practices. The bill is sponsored by California Citrus Mutual, a trade group, and is opposed by the beekeeping industry.

“They’re putting a bunch of misinformation and spending a bunch of money to correct their poor business decisions,” said Orin Johnson, president of the California Beekeepers Association. These seedless oranges need distance–two miles or more, depending on whom you ask–from some other varieties of citrus in order to avoid growing seeds. The “poor business decision,” Johnson said, was to largely ignore this standard when planting new groves.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, counters that his organization repeatedly has tried to offer compromises to the beekeepers. The real issue, he said, is that beekeepers want to be free to use farmers’ citrus fields to feed their bees between pollination times for other crops. This is particularly true after 800,000 hives come in temporarily from out-of-state in the spring to help fertilize the almond crop. California has an estimated 500,000 year-round hives.

No one is against bees, counters De Leon. But he said he has repeatedly taken amendments to pacify the beekeepers–changing a five-mile buffer zone to a two-mile buffer zone to a working group with no buffer zone–to no avail.
“If someone comes in your house and spray-paints the walls, that’s a crime,” said De Leon. “I think the bee folks are being unfair.”

Both industries have suffered severe market dislocations in recent years. Beekeepers are trying to come to terms with colony-collapse disorder, a poorly understood syndrome that has been leading to serious bee die-offs in the United States and Europe since late last year. Scientists have been looking at a variety of parasites and environmental factors, but have yet to pinpoint a cause.

California’s citrus industry, meanwhile, has been dealing with a sharp increase in foreign competition. After a serious freeze killed off much of California’s orange crop in 1998, foreign growers rushed to fill the void. U.S. consumers decided they liked the seedless Murcott and Clementine varieties offered by countries like Spain and Morocco, Nelsen said.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, U.S. citrus imports nearly doubled between 2002 and 2006, from $222 million to $407 million. Over this period, Mexican imports doubled, South African imports tripled and Spanish farmers also made big gains.

State citrus growers have started planting seedless Murcotts and Clementines to regain lost market share, Nelson said, hitting 25,000 acres last year. Citrus Mutual adds up the acreage of different varieties every two years, Nelsen said, and he expects the state will register 35,000 to 40,000 acres of these seedless types when they finish the next count in February.

The dispute started to make it into the local news in 2004 when Paramount Citrus, a large grower operating in Kern and Tulare counties, threatened to sue beekeepers. But Nelsen said the dispute goes back to at least the 1977 Citrus/Bee Protection Act, a law that among other things limits to use of pesticides in citrus groves to protect bees.

A single bee colony can have a foraging radius of four miles, creating a 50-square-mile feeding area. By this standard, California’s resident bee colonies could cover an area seven times the United States. But many of these bees are squeezed in to the same four counties–Fresno, Kern, Madera and Tulare–that dominate California’s citrus crop.

Many other crops are grown there, as well, and the bees are there because those farmers want them. Many beekeepers make most of their money off of pollination fees, said Gene Brandi, legislative director for the Beekeepers Association. According to figures provided by UC Davis, beekeepers in Tulare County made $122 million from pollination fees in 2005, compared to $40 million in income from honey.

“This is the first time there has ever been a bill to ban bees from any crop,” Brandi said.

But he added that he expects the bills to pass “in some form,” especially since it passed out of the Assembly on a 76-0 vote in May. The sides have been trying to negotiate a number of issues, including a potential call to concentrate seedless crops in certain areas. Citrus Mutual’s Nelsen said that his group offered to plant flowers on fallow group away from citrus crops in order to give bees a place to eat, but were rebuffed. Both sides say they are seeking to prevent the dispute from getting any worse.

“You’re gonna have a real battle out here if we don’t develop a coexistence program,” Nelsen said.

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