News Column

Bee Deaths Linked to Pesticides, Parasites

May 3, 2013

Bob Rodriguez

California beekeepers, among the nation's leading suppliers of honey, say they are relieved the federal government is finally paying greater attention to the problem of declining bee populations.

Bees play a critical role in agriculture, from producing honey to pollinating many crops, including almonds, a $3 billion a year business in California.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency released a report linking parasites, disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure as factors for bee deaths.

This year, California's beekeepers lost between 20% to 50% of their colonies -- some lost even more.

"It is unbelievable what has been happening," said Mike Tolmachoff, of M & D Honey in Madera. "Last winter we lost about 42% of our bees and the winter before that we lost 66%."

Tolmachoff said he is encouraged by the recent USDA report and the effort to find out what is killing the nation's bees.

"This has been a problem we have been dealing with for some time and it is good that the government is finally getting on board," Tolmachoff said.

Beekeepers say that one of their biggest concerns is figuring out how large a role pesticides play in bee deaths.

"I don't think there is much of an argument about pesticides being a problem," said Daren Hess, a Kingsburg beekeeper. "And some say it is a major part of the problem."

The USDA said in its report that additional research is needed to determine the risks pesticides pose to bee health.

Environmentalists say the report did not go far enough in naming pesticides as a major culprit.

"Federal officials have failed to take the issue of bee declines seriously," said Paul Towers, spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network. "Following the worst year for bee losses in U.S. history, officials have focused on a series of bureaucratic processes rather than coordinated action."

Tolmachoff hopes government scientists will take a look at what pesticides harm bees, and the methods used to apply them. He has concerns about the use of chemigation, the practice of applying chemicals through an irrigation system.

The practice is being done in some west Fresno County cantaloupe fields where Tolmachoff used to pollinate the crop.

"The chemicals go up through the root system and when the bees visit the plant and feed on the nectar they are being exposed to whatever is in the water," he said. "That is why a lot of beekeepers are getting out of here, away from the Valley to where there are no commercial crops."

This summer, Tolmachoff is planning to take his bees to South Dakota, something he has not done in five years.

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