Plan to protect citrus is affecting bees

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There’s a pest attacking California’s citrus. The Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) is a tiny, flying insect that transmits a bacterial disease called huanglongbing, or HLB. It’s also known as citrus greening disease, and it’s fatal for citrus trees.

To protect against these insects and avoid the mass citrus die-off Florida has experienced, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has begun implementing a statewide treatment program. It involves applying two insecticides:

  • Tempo, a contact insecticide for controlling the adults and nymphs of ACP, will be applied from the ground using hydraulic spray equipment to the foliage of host plants.
  • Merit, a systematic insecticide for controlling the immature life stages of ACP, will be applied to the soil underneath host plants.

Capture

Many residents and farmers around the Central Coast worry these insecticides harm plant and animal life. Beekeepers and bee lovers are especially worried.

“Honey bees are very important. Oftentimes they’re called the bee of commerce,” said Don Cole, a beekeeper and owner of San Marcos Farms Honey Company. His bees pollinate avocados, almonds, wildflowers and other crops in Santa Barbara County.

Although most citrus trees are self-pollinators, bees eat citrus nectar when the tree is blooming. That’s where we get orange blossom honey, one of the most popular varieties.

CaptureThat worries beekeepers.

“The chemicals [the CDFA] is using come up through the branches of the tree, from the roots, and end up in the nectar of the flower and the pollen,” said Cole. His bees snack on citrus nectar in Ojai, Santa Paula and  Filmore. “When the citrus is blooming and the bees are in there, they’re going to be subject to whatever chemical is used during that time period.”

Sometimes the bees will die outright. Other times, it weakens the immune system of the bee and another pathogen or parasite will finish the job.

“A lot of beekeepers can’t respond in time,” said Cole, who has at times been given notice only a day or two before spraying occurred nearby. Luckily, his hives are portable. Smaller beekeepers often don’t have that luxury.

“Even when you move them to a new location, it doesn’t guarantee they’re away from whatever is being sprayed,” Cole added. Bees can fly up to three miles in any direction. Moving them into the back-country and away from human activities also poses a problem. Arid regions can be harsh for bees.

It seems like a Catch-22. To put it simply, without an ACP treatment plan, California could lose its citrus industry. But, if bees begin to die off in large quantities, California could lose their valuable pollination services.

“In the end, we’re just going to have to let it develop,” Cole said, “and try the best we can to provide additional forage for the bees in the way of planting herbs and other crops that don’t need to be sprayed,” such as  lavender, rosemary and mint.

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Don Cole of San Marcos Farms Honey Company shows off his bees. Photo: Kathryn Barnes

What does the CDFA say? Listen to our interview with Victoria Hornbaker, citrus program manager for the CDFA.