Food and sustainability reporter Julia Mitric is on a quest to understand how and why California bees are dying off in droves. Join Mitric as she talks with agriculture experts to gain insight on the epidemic. (Scroll down to Dispatch #1 to start from the beginning.)
Dispatch #4, March 23, 4:01 p.m.: Almond Orchard In Sanger
A hunch that turned out to be wrong led me to my last stop on this reporting trip. I drive towards almond orchards east of the town of Sanger in eastern Fresno County.
For several days I'd been trying to identify a bee keeper whose colonies were hit by the bee deaths.
After calling the California State Beekeepers Association, bee keepers, brokers, local growers and academic bee specialists -- I had zero leads on a local bee keeper connected to the bee deaths.
Timing is everything. And now that almond pollination is over for 2017, bee keepers (or bee brokers) have move their colonies to bee yards until it's time to get them into place for the next bloom - perhaps prunes.
So I asked myself, what did reporters do before Wi-Fi, before browsers and smart phones, before social media and GPS?
Oh yeah, I remember, my mother was a print reporter back in olden times. She once told me they just showed up to places and talked to people and tracked down sources through word of mouth...or knocking on doors.
So, I told myself, why not try that?
Dispatch #3, March 22, 10:19 p.m.: Growers And Bee Brokers
This afternoon, I visited Matthew Efird, an almond grower in the Caruthers area of Fresno County who also cultivates walnuts, wine grapes and raisins.
I sought out Efird's perspective on the grower/bee broker relationship because he has nothing to do with the recent bee deaths in Fresno. But he's very familiar with how growers and bee brokers (or beekeepers) work in tandem.
Efird says his family has a thirty-year history with their bee broker. Every year, they go over bee hive site locations at least two months before almond pollination season begins. They plan to have the honey bees placed in orchards at least a week before bloom so the bees can acclimate to their new surroundings.
Efird says he relies on his bee broker (who's also a bee keeper) to check the health of the bees before they're shipped and they check them again together after they've settled in. They assess the health and strength of the hives. It's a lot of back and forth to make sure everyone's on the same page.
In short, in Efird's experience, it's team work.
Now, at the end of the day, I'm mulling over just how many players are involved in making sure honey bees are in the right place at the right time so they can pollinate California's almond orchards (not to mention plums, nectarines and other crops).
There are the growers who rely on healthy bees to pollinate their crops. Then there are bee keepers (apiarists) who may work through bee brokers, the folks who figure out where bees will be placed at pollination time and when/where to move them. Many of the honey bees themselves are traveling to California from as far away as Texas and South Dakota. Then there is a person who's known as an Agricultural PCA (Pest Control Advisor) who advises growers about which pesticides are needed in the orchard or vineyard. Then there are the county Agricultural Commissioners whose role is to make sure county players adhere to CDFA rules.
All of these folks operate in relationship to one another. So, they talk to each other, right? But what happens if that communication loop breaks down somewhere along the line? What if players don't convey crucial information? Could a break like that have played a role at the sites where large-scale bee deaths occurred?
In talking with Efird, we both wondered aloud, where did that breakdown occur (if it did) and what lessons can be learned?
It may take awhile before we know if a communication gap had anything to do with bees dying in Fresno.
But it's certainly one hunch I plan to pursue in my reporting as The Case Of The Dead Honey Bees continues.
Dispatch #2, March 22, 6:51 p.m.: 'CSI Fresno:' What Killed Those Bees?
My first stop in Fresno was the County Agricultural Commissioner's office where I met "bee investigator" Tom Ullmann. A makeshift bee map is taped to his wall. Ullmann pointed out four sites on the grid of roads in the western part of Fresno County - each one represents a location where honey bees died.
But there's another bee map that's key to this story. It's an online map kept up by the Fresno AG commissioner's team. Ullmann says bee keepers and bee brokers are supposed to register their hives as they place them in the fields. (The registration costs ten dollars.) By CDFA rules, growers, in turn, must contact the AG commissioner to say they intend to spray in a given area. Ullman and his colleagues check the online bee map and let growers know if there are any bee hives registered within a one-mile radius of the planned spray. If so, the grower must contact the registered bee keeper (or broker) and let them know when the spraying will happen so that they have time to cover or move the bees. (Ullmann says there are CDFA rules that keep growers from spraying during the day when honey bees are out and about.)
Next, we head out into the orchards to see the site.
As we drive over, Ullmann tells me he never expected his new role with the Fresno Dept of AG to feel like an episode of CSI. Yet now he's part of a team preparing samples of dead bee bodies found at this site in February. In addition to dead bees, they're also prepping swab samples from the outside of the bee boxes. It's like forensics. Over the next few days, samples will be sent to the CA Department Of Pesticide Regulation, which will assess whether lab tests should be run to find out what chemical residue is present on the samples.
Ullmann says the Fresno County AG Commissioner takes the role of researching and investigating the bee deaths very seriously. But he adds, "so far in this instance we've not found any instance of anything that was non-compliant with regulations." There were permitted pesticide applications that happened within the time frame of the bee deaths. But they didn't happen in the almond orchards where the bees were. Looking at the four sites in western Fresno Ullmann is tasked with investigating, he says no bee hives were registered within the relevant area.
So, dear reader... that leaves the open question: what led to the bee deaths if only permitted (night time) sprays took place within a 1 mile radius of the bee hives?
(To BEE continued)
Dispatch #1: About This Project
But those labs are merely one piece of a complex puzzle. The bee die-off could also be linked to a communication gap between bee brokers placing hives and growers applying approved pesticide spray.