Beekeepers, Mandarin Growers at Odds

The conflict between beekeepers and citrus growers is focused on the production of a group of mandarins called Clementines and one specific variety of mandarins, W. Murcott Afourer. Some mandarin varieties, such as the Clementines and W. Murcott, become seedy if cross pollinated with other varieties of citrus, such as tangelo, lemon, some grapefruit and pummelo, and some other mandarins (like each other, for example).

The terms mandarins and tangerines are used interchangeably in the U.S. and include subgroups of varieties such as the Clementines and the Satsumas and individual varieties such as W. Murcott Afourer and Dancy.

Within the subgroups there are a number of varieties themselves. For example the Clementine subgroup includes Algerian Clementine, Clenenules or Nules Clementines and others. We use the term ‘mandarins’ to refer to the larger group, ‘Clementines’ to the subgroup of varieties of Clementines, and ‘Clementine’ when referring to an individual variety.

The principal carrier of pollen, in many citrus orchards, is the honey bee. Honey bees are able to carry pollen great distances, perhaps up to two miles or more. Therein lays the conflict between Clementine/W. Murcott growers and beekeepers: growers make their living selling seedless mandarins while bee keepers make their living selling honey and renting bee hives to almond and other growers of California crops.

For beekeepers, more money is made from renting hives than from honey.

Bees are vital to agricultural crops in California that require cross-pollination to produce fruit. A large portion of this pollination market is for fruit and nut crops that generally flower before citrus, like almonds and cherries.

Some crops that require bees, like kiwi, flower at about the same time as citrus. Bees are generally not required to produce citrus fruit, but citrus provides a source of food to maintain the bees when few other crops are flowering and for production of citrus-flavored honey.

So why grow Clementine and W. Murcott mandarins? Assuming they are grown so that they are seedless, the main attraction of these fruit is that they can be profitably sold into a market that has been ready made by growers from Spain and countries in Africa, like Algeria and South Africa. The fruit does ship well for a mandarin and has an attractive deep orange color.

Clementine and W. Murcott mandarins have a similar appearance and taste, but Clementines mature early in the season (late October to mid December in the San Joaquin Valley), while W. Murcott matures later (early January through March). By growing both, the marketplace is supplied with a similar product over an extended portion of the year. Other mandarin varieties exist that are genetically seedless, like the Satsuma and Gold Nugget that are early and late maturing. However, these varieties have characteristics of their own, that at least appear to make them less desirable candidates for commercial production on the scale of what is happening with Clementines and W. Murcott.

In the 2005 USDA documented a phenomenal increase in acreage of Clementines and W. Murcott in California. The 2005 California acreage report shows over 5,000 acres of W. Murcott and nearly 8,000 acres of Clementine mandarins exist out of a total of about 18,400 acres of all mandarin varieties. Over 9,000 of the approximately 13,000 acres of W. Murcott and Clementines were classified as non-bearing in 2005.

Most mandarins are in Kern and Tulare counties, although numbers are increasing rapidly in Fresno. Most counties in the citrus producing regions of California have some W. Murcott, Clementines or other mandarins.

To beekeepers the handwriting is on the wall. If large bee-free areas surrounding a Clementine or W. Murcott grove are created, most of San Joaquin Valley and parts of the southern coast will be off limits to bees during the citrus bloom period.

As in most conflicts, middle ground probably exists so that seedless Clementine and W. Murcott can be grown and bee keepers can continue to produce citrus honey. In the late 1970s, beekeepers and citrus growers came to a long-lasting agreement that protected bees from pesticide applications during bloom, in a way that was workable for citrus growers. Before that settlement was reached and codified in the California Code of Regulations, conflict between beekeepers and citrus growers was just as harsh as it is now between beekeepers and some mandarin growers.

Questions exist that tend to polarize opinion. For example, is it fair to plant a grove of Clementine mandarins and then ask neighboring citrus growers to do any of the following: remove citrus that might cross pollinate with these Clementines, remove kiwi orchards that require bee pollination, cease keeping bees if they have hives, and/or cease allowing independent beekeepers to produce honey as they have in the past?

On the other side, is it fair that an individual develops new Clementine groves far from existing citrus with the intent of growing seedless fruit, and then finds that beekeepers are placing hives on adjacent oil-field property (for example)? In this example, the beekeeper did nothing to develop the pollen and nectar resource and no previous resource existed, yet his or her activities are severely impacting the economic returns of the mandarin grower who did.

Plant breeding activities have already provided a partial solution to this problem. ‘Tango’, a new variety of seedless mandarin, has been released that is nearly identical to W. Murcott. Since Tango is nearly seedless, bees or no bees, the cross-pollination issue disappears.

Many existing blocks of W. Murcott will probably be grafted over to Tango as budwood becomes available. Until a similar seedless development occurs for the early-maturing Clementines or some middle ground can be found, relations between the two groups are probably going to remain tense and litigious.

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