Can you imagine farmers pollinating their orchards with feather dusters because all the bees have disappeared? That’s what happened to China due to high levels of pollution and although California and New York have the strictest pesticide controls, there’s something worrisome happening within the commercial honeybee industry that has beekeepers and growers concerned.
“What’s the Buzz All About?” was the topic for the 39th annual Oakdale Ag Scholarship Luncheon sponsored by the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce, Thursday, Feb. 23 at the city’s community center.
Proceeds from the luncheon go toward ag scholarships for local graduating high school seniors looking to go into an agricultural field of study.
Dr. Eric Mussen, UC Davis, UCCE Apiculturist, and John Miller, vice president of the California State Beekeepers Association, were on hand to speak to the growing problem facing beekeepers and how the health of honeybees is essential to the world’s agriculture.
Tom Orvis provided a brief introduction to the speakers with thought-provoking facts:
While the No.1 agricultural industry in the Central Valley was dairy, the No. 2 industry was almonds, which means since healthy bees are symbiotically important to the almond growers, the fact that bee health seems to be on the decline should be worrisome across the board.
And it is.
Project Apism is one of the ways the industry has become proactive about the problem. Beekeepers and orchardists established the project in December 2006 as a new vision to fund honeybee research on managed colonies. The goal is to direct research to improve the health of honeybee colonies while improving crop production.
“Without bees, there is no agriculture,” Orvis said.
However, as a fun fact, Miller shared that honeybees are not considered native to this country as they weren’t introduced from Europe until the 1600s.
Dr. Mussen took the stage and demonstrated through a Power Point presentation how the current standards and practices used within commercial beekeeping are not providing a sustainable yield of honey.
Nationally, there are 2.6 million colonies and 3,000 beekeepers that produce 150 million pounds of honey but Americans consume 300 million pounds each year.
“Which means we have to import half of what we consume,” Mussen said.
Also, the average colony suffers a loss of 29 to 35 percent of its bees, which isn’t sustainable.
In California, there are 500,000 colonies and only 250 beekeepers that produce 30 million pounds of honey annually.
How much is produced is dependent upon many different factors, including favorable weather, and Southern California has the most output in California; however, more than 50 percent of the bee breeders who produce the queens come from Northern California.
One hundred and thirty different types of crops depend on pollination and honeybees are the easiest to move in and out in large numbers. The crop value of their pollination efforts is $18 billion.
In California, there are 90 crops that depend upon bee pollination with a crop value of $7 billion.
And, 780,000 acres of California’s almonds use 1.6 million colonies of honeybees for pollination.
“We use more than half the country’s ‘bees on wheels’,” Mussen said.
Miller, who is a multi-state beekeeper, talked specifically about the health of bees today and how beekeeping has changed with the times.
Viruses, chemical pollutants, and other toxic influences have changed the way the bees operate, which has had a direct effect on farmers.
“Our food supply arrives on the wings of a 747 freighter and honeybees,” Miller said. “The 747 is optional — the honeybees are not.”
Change is happening quickly, he added.
“We have to be smart and we have to pay attention,” Miller said.
Miller shared how tinkering with different pesticide cocktails have resulted in devastating consequences for the bees, such as deformities, memory loss, and destructive behavior within the hive, as well as CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). And research into virus strains affecting the bees has netted confusing results that have been difficult to quantify without more research.
Both Miller and Mussen made it clear that honeybee health and production were nearing a crisis state but the solutions were still a ways off. However, Miller stated succinctly the outcome without a resolution by saying, “There are places in the world where there are no more wild pollinators.”
Hence, the Chinese farmers armed with feather dusters doing what bees were designed to do naturally.
Miller applauded the efforts of proactive and progressive farmers who are out there with their eye on the next generation.
“Kids are the future of agriculture,” Miller said, which seemed fitting given the Modesto Junior College Agricultural Department is one of the fastest growing junior college programs in the state.
In fact, the department of Ag studies is so popular, it’s one of the few areas of study that has not been impacted by the current enrollment slow-down.
“The Ag Department is one of two not in trouble with enrollment,” stated Erica Bianchi.
And the department is pulling students from all over, not just from the immediate area.
“The students came from all over the state because it’s a great program. I came from San Diego to study here,” MJC Ag student Katie Wagner said.
Both Wagner and Bianchi stated their belief that the agricultural field as a whole works together for the common good.
“We all have to work together to make it a whole family,” Bianchi said.
“Everything has to work cohesively together and it’s very inspirational,” Wagner added.
Both are concerned by the threat of urban sprawl eating up prime farmland, particularly when there are whole neighborhoods in the Central Valley sitting empty due to foreclosure or overbuilding.
“We really need to educate the public on the importance of protecting prime farmland. We grow wholesome products that are good for you,” Bianchi said of farmers.
For more information on Project Apism, go to www.projectapism.org.