Panel takes up seedless mandarins and bees controversy

A panel of seedless citrus interests and beekeepers in the San Joaquin Valley met for a public hearing in Fresno recently to begin the task of resolving complex differences that threaten the way they do business.

The center of contention between the two industries in Fresno, Kern, Madera, and Tulare counties is the separation of lucrative, seedless mandarin orange varieties from honey bee colonies, blamed by mandarin growers for cross-pollination from other citrus and seed formation in the fruit, causing economic losses.

In brief, citrus interests want bee-free zones for two miles around their seedless plantings, while beekeepers want traditional access to citrus and other crops to maintain healthy colonies for pollination and honey production.

The Fresno meeting, attended by about 80 persons, did not find solutions, but the testimony and comments offered during more than three hours by some 25 persons did sharpen points of view.

The Seedless Mandarin and Honey Bee Coexistence Working Group, authorized by Assembly Bill 771 enacted into law on October 8, 2007, was appointed by California Secretary of Agriculture A. G. Kawamura to find best management practices for both sides in the controversy.

The group, which will be meeting during the next several months, has until June 1, 2008 to reach consensus. Failing that, the law requires the secretary to adopt regulations no later than February 1, 2009.

The panel, including some represented by alternates at the Fresno hearing, consists of Ted Batkin, California Citrus Research Board; Gene Brandi, California Beekeepers Association; Dan Cummings, Almond Board of California; Roger Everett, Terra Bella Honey Company; Steve Godlin, S. P. Godlin Apiaries; David Krause, Paramount Citrus; Chris Lange, Beresford Ranches; Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual; Etienne Rabe, Sun Pacific; and Jerry Prieto, Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner, who presided.

The act cites several elements of the citrus-grower side in the controversy. To become more competitive in view of increased consumer demand for seedless fruit, the California citrus industry has during the past five years removed an estimated 40,000 acres of citrus and replaced it with new plantings of mandarin varieties, largely Clementines or R. Murcotts, intended to be seedless. The 2005 California Citrus Acreage Report indicates more than 10,000 acres of these were bearing in 2004, and an additional 2,000 acres came into bearing in 2005. Another 12,000 acres is expected to bear within the next three years, and more acreage is being planted.

A University of California, Riverside study published in June of 2005 found that seedless mandarins command three to four times as much revenue as seeded mandarins. Meanwhile, other citrus-producing nations have adopted citrus protection areas to limit losses from cross-pollination.

Also cited in the act is the broad importance of the honey bee industry, which pollinates about $6 billion in California crops. Honey bee colonies are placed in the citrus belt of Fresno, Kern, Madera, and Tulare counties to support existing agricultural practices, including pollination of several commodities and production of honey.

Colony Collapse Disorder has claimed 25 percent of the nation's bee population in the past three years, placing pressure on other crops that rely on a healthy bee population for pollination.

The act also states that any regulation or best management practice under it “shall not affect the actual pollination process of other commodities during the blooming cycle, nor shall it be implemented when almonds, avocados, peaches, plums, nectarines, seed crops or other commodities require pollination.”

It also prohibits any regulation or practice that would affect the ability of property owners located within the area impacted by such a provision to farm any commercial crop, including, but not limited to, honey, citrus, and other commodities recognized by the Department of Food and Agriculture.

Concerns of the bee industry are typified by a statement during the hearing from Joe Traynor, a Bakersfield bee broker representing the California Beekeepers Association, who charged, “Mandarin growers with seed problems did not properly isolate their plantings from other pollen sources.

“In some cases they created their own seed problem by planting Murcott Afourers too close to their Clementine mandarins on the same ranch.”

Traynor added, “California citrus bloom is an extremely valuable resource for beekeepers, especially in these times of colony collapse problems. If beekeepers are denied access to citrus locations, all will be adversely affected, and some will go out of business.” He suggested netting over trees to exclude bees as one solution.

Traynor also submitted a copy of a letter from Ray Copeland, an Exeter citrus consultant, addressed to the secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture and others. Copeland was instrumental in adoption of seedless mandarin varieties from Spain and Morocco.

Copeland's letter states he emphasized to California growers the importance of Clementines and other seedless varieties being isolated from other pollen sources, but some growers planted trees in high-density bee areas, “knowing full well that pollinization would be a problem and now want to see all of the bees excluded without paying the price of the exclusion.”

Orange beekeeper Melinda Moore, who with her husband, Steve Wernett, maintains 650-700 colonies in Orange, Tulare, and Kern counties, told the group their business cannot survive on income from almond pollination fees alone.

Honey production, from citrus and other crops, she said, is essential for the well-being of the hives and the needs of beekeepers' families.

She said they lost bee locations in the Maricopa area when mandarin growers pressured landowners and managers not to allow colonies to be placed near mandarin groves.

Veteran beekeeper Don Burkett of Reedley said citrus is vital to his colonies, and without it recent rental rates of $175 per colony could soar to $500 to maintain colony health. Colonies cannot be moved to the foothills during orange bloom, he added, because of toxic buckeye.

Attorney Louie A. Brown, Jr. of Kahn, Soares and Conway, Sacramento, representing California Citrus Mutual, stated the legislation was drawn to reach best management practices without economic hardship to either side.

He said there was also no intent to force out bee operations bred and raised in the four-county area. He added, however, there has been an influx of imported bees that was not there 10 to 20 years ago.

Etienne Rabe, technical director of Sun Pacific, said they initially had buffers around their mandarin plantings at Maricopa, but a “supersaturation” of bees overwhelmed them.

He said the new seedless Tango mandarin is only a late-season variety, it will need five to seven years before complete testing is done, and it still could have seeds. Netting to exclude bees has not been thoroughly explored, is costly, and inhibits spraying, and few bee repellent products are satisfactory, Rabe added.

David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus, said they are committed to finding a solution through the work group, but it will take compromise from both sides.

Fresno ag commissioner Prieto was optimistic about the panel finding a solution, but he predicted neither side would be completely happy with the outcome.

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