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Stung by Problems : Beekeepers: They’re Not All in Clover

Times Staff Writer

Swiftly and silently, the deadly, stinging toxin swarmed over the compact wood-frame structure, instantly dooming the tiny agricultural workers inside.

The end came so suddenly that the victims probably never knew what happened. But Bruce Beekman knew. As soon as he saw the millions of corpses, he knew.

Someone had rubbed out his bees.

As a turf war, the assault last month near the Don Pedro Reservoir 110 miles east of San Francisco might not rank with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. But it has set the bee world to buzzing and it gives outsiders a peek inside the increasingly competitive world of beekeeping.

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Variety of Woes

It is a world that seems by its very nature to be pastoral and relaxed, but which actually is honeycombed with problems, from cut-rate honey imports and an influx of bee parasites to shrinking California orange groves and bad weather.

The result, beekeepers say, is keener competition and shorter tempers, which can result in telephoned threats, bee rustling--and, as Bruce Beekman learned, the occasional hive “hit.”

“I don’t think the public realizes just how cutthroat the business gets,” said biologist Marian Anzer of the Tuolumne County agricultural commissioner’s office. “The beekeeping industry is a very tight business, and when somebody gets beat out on a contract, the only way to get back is to sabotage the other guys’ bees. It happens quite often.”

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“Sure, I’ve been threatened, my family has been threatened; we’ve all been threatened,” said Steve Park, a leading beekeeper and breeder in Palo Cedro, Calif., a small town east of Redding near the Oregon border.

Potential Profits

Behind the skulduggery is the obscure lucre of beekeeping. Not only do bees make honey--$14.9 million worth last year in California--they also pollinate about 50 crops, from almonds and oranges to cotton and alfalfa. This earns California’s estimated 300 commercial beekeepers another $12 million annually. California also is a major supplier of bee “packages,” or starter colonies, to other states.

With such high stakes and growing problems, the competition sometimes turns deadly--for the bees, anyway.

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In the Beekman case, apian autopsy by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento revealed last week that the bee killers used a potent pesticide called chlorpyrifos. Gera Curry of that state agency said tests showed the dead bees had received an ample dose of the toxin.

Chlorpyrifos is the active ingredient in two name-brand commercial products--an exterminator-type structural pesticide called Lorsban and a wide-spectrum agricultural pesticide called Dursban. Both are labeled as particularly deadly to bees, Curry said, and both are available to the public.

Sgt. John Hill of the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department said his agency, after reviewing the lab results, is pursuing a number of leads and considering several motives.

Beekman, chairman of the state’s five-member Apian Advisory Board, believes he already knows the motive. He suspects--and other beekeepers familiar with the situation agree--that his bees were killed in vengeance.

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“If it was a vandal or someone angry about being stung, they are not going to spend time systematically exterminating 120 hives,” Beekman mused the other day over a chili burger and coffee at the Winkin’ Lantern Restaurant in nearby Yosemite Junction.

“Someone like that might kick over one or two (hives) and leave. But if you are angry about being stung, you are not going to stand around in the middle of a bunch of bees, prying open hives and pouring in poison for an hour or two, or whatever it took.”

It was no small loss. Although Beekman has other hives beyond the 118 destroyed, he estimates the attack will cost him between $7,000 and $9,000 by the time he adds the cost of buying new bees to the lost income he otherwise would have earned pollinating crops and harvesting honey.

Beekman traces the affair back to last fall when he cast the deciding vote in favor of keeping the state’s quarantine against bees infested with tracheal mites, a pesky parasite that is the center of a particularly nasty controversy in bee circles at the moment.

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The mites--whose actual threat to bees is hotly debated--have infested bee populations in Texas and elsewhere outside California. To protect California bees, the state inspects migratory hives that come to California to help pollinate the large almond crop.

If migrant bees are found to be infested, the hive is either refused entry, costing the owners round-trip shipping fees, or the hive is “depopulated"--that is, the bees are killed. More than 10,000 hives have been depopulated so far. The net result is a lot of beekeepers becoming as mad as hornets.

The beekeepers are bugged not only by the financial losses, but also by the idea of government regulation. Beekeepers are by nature an independent bunch--one of the state’s largest apiarists not long ago criticized government honey price supports as “unsound” and “socialistic"--and they resent government restriction on their freedom of movement, Mussen said.

California’s quarantine is resented even though it has been scaled back to only 17 northern counties now that Southern California bees show signs of mite infestation.

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Many California beekeepers defend restrictions, pointing out that colleagues north of Sacramento make a good living selling packages consisting of a healthy queen and a larger number of workers and drones in a wire-mesh box. Buyers will not pay for packaged bees infested with the tracheal mite.

By itself, the mite matter might stir up enough trouble. But bee experts say that when that emotional issue is heaped upon all the others facing beekeepers, the result is a mess.

“It’s a bad scene right now,” said entomologist Norm Gary of the UC Davis Veterinary School. “There are some very intense feelings.”

Worst He Has Seen

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His colleague, bee expert Eric Mussen, agreed. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said, “but I’ve only been around the industry 11 years.”

The intense feelings have manifested themselves in a variety of ways--some of them apparently lifted from old cowboy movies. Beekeepers are cutting in on established “grazing lands” of competitors--the fields of clover, buckwheat and other grasses where bees collect nectar for honey.

Some varmints have even been known to rustle a competitor’s bees by finding hives being used to pollinate crops and hauling them away before the real owner picks them up. Rustling is discouraged by the use of branding irons--on wooden hives, not individual bees.

“It’s like cattle or anything else,” Beekman said with a shrug. “You can’t sit there and watch them all the time.”

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The worst attack is the one Beekman felt--depopulation.

“It has happened before when one beekeeper felt that another came into his territory,” Mussen said, referring to the fields and farms that traditionally contract with the same beekeeper for pollination services. “It’s one way to get back at a beekeeper when you don’t feel like punching him in the nose.”

The real problem, Park said, is a rise in honey imports at a time of falling consumer demand.

“People are losing money, so they are harder to get along with,” he said. “They’re more competitive because there isn’t as much profit out there.”

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The United States in 1986 imported a record 118.4 million pounds of honey from China, Mexico and other nations at an average price of 36 cents a pound, Census Bureau statistics show. Domestic producers, meanwhile, sold 200 million pounds for an average of 51 cents a pound, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show.

Consumption Drops

At the same time, per-capita consumption has fallen to 1.1 pounds each year in the United States--about two-thirds what it was in 1950 and only half of the current consumption in such places as Canada, West Germany and Japan.

In addition, California beekeepers face the problem of greater out-of-state competition to pollinate Southern California orange groves--a lucrative trade that can account for more than half of a beekeeper’s income. However, there is some compensation in California’s booming almond crop, beekeepers said.

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Apiarists also are stung by erratic weather that shrinks the supply of sage, clover, buckwheat and other plants that bees rely on to produce honey, another major producer of income. This not only cuts into income, it also requires beekeepers to pay for syrup to feed the non-productive bees.

And the tracheal mite is not the only infestation that beekeepers are busy trying to swat. They also are faced with such problems as the bloodsucking Varroa Jacobsoni mite and Africanized “killer bees” slowly migrating up from Central America. These Africanized bees are more difficult to manage and less skilled pollinators than the European honeybee favored by apiarists.

“Some of these problems are as tough to solve as a cure for cancer or the common cold,” said Gary, the university entomologist. ". . . We really have a potential disaster on our hands.”

Increasingly, beekeepers are turning in their nets rather than face further losses. “There are almost more advertisements for businesses for sale in the bee journals than there are articles on how to make a living with them,” Park said.

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Encouraging Signs

There are some encouraging indicators, however. Mussen and others note that the falling value of the dollar is discouraging imports while making domestic honey more competitive overseas. And if Africanized bees buzz up from Honduras into Mexico’s beekeeping region, Yucatan, imports may fall further.

Meanwhile, the industry in January organized a National Honey Board to promote honey as a sweet alternative to sugar for both bakers and consumers. The campaign, based in Longmont, Colo., started collecting its penny-a-pound fee from producers on Monday.

Board manager Dan Hall said small changes at home can have a big effect on the industry, so he will at first try to get people to use honey in their best recipes and smear honey on their breakfast toast.

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“To a food technologist, honey is an ideal ingredient for baking; it is an excellent browning agent and a sweetener at the same time,” he said. “And in Europe, they don’t even think of breakfast without honey; in this country, you have to ask for it or you’re likely to wind up with just jam or something.”

Besides, he asks, “What other commodity is written up in the Bible?”


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