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Experts downplay almond stress as cause of bee die-offs

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Bee experts downplay the role that servicing California's huge almond blossom has played on the bee die-offs of recent years. A national columnist asserted stress from travel and the timing of the blossom is largely responsible for the deaths. But beekeepers attribute the die-offs to a variety of causes.

Capital Press

PALO CEDRO, Calif. — Is the stress from servicing California’s $2.83 billion almond industry what’s been killing off bee populations in recent years?

One national columnist thinks so, reasoning that travel and the timing of the annual almond blossom weaken bees to the point that many of them do not survive.

But bee experts counter that migratory beekeeping has been going on for much longer than the phenomenon known has colony collapse disorder, and many beekeepers feed their bees to strengthen them before the bloom.

“We start feeding them protein on July 1,” said Shannon Wooten, a beekeeper and queen bee breeder here. “The protein is what they need the most ... In some years the weather has been really poor and it was stressful, but for us it was a very short trip.

“Moving bees does stress them ... but there are ways you can minimize that,” he said, adding that beekeepers can put moisture in hives if they’re traveling more than 24 hours and load and unload the trucks at night.

Many factors have contributed to the bee deaths, said Caroline Adams, a Plano, Texas, beekeeper who is this year’s American Honey Queen.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a large part,” Adams said of almond industry-related stress. “We’ve been doing migratory beekeeping for years. It might contribute to a small part of it.”

The comments come in response to a Sept. 6 Daily Caller column titled “What’s Killing the Bees? Almond Stress.” It was written by Steve Milloy, a conservative environmental and public health consultant whose website, junkscience.com, aims to debunk what it considers environmental myths.

Milloy contends beekeeping has evolved from small-scale honey production to “an industrial-scale enterprise servicing the massive growth of pollination-dependent agriculture,” including California’s roughly 800,000 acres of almond groves.

He notes beekeepers come from as far away as Florida to fulfill lucrative pollination contracts, and that the trip’s vibration and noise is hard on the bees. He also argues bees are naturally at a weakened state in February, and that almond pollen is nutritionally inferior as a food source for them.

Malnutrition has been identified as a factor in colony collapse disorder, the mysterious malady first noticed in the winter of 2006 that has decimated one-third of the nation’s bees every year, according to the University of California-Davis.

However, bee experts have blamed many other factors for contributing, including drought and inclement weather, pesticides and climate change.

Randy Oliver, a beekeeper and nationally known biologist from Grass Valley, Calif., maintains that weather issues have added up to a perfect storm for bees.

“There are certainly stresses incurred by the very large-scale beekeepers in readying bees for almond production,” he told the Capital Press in an email. “The huge holding yards used by some contribute to colony stress and transmissions of pathogens.

“But those stresses are not inherent in the act of pollination, but rather due to their choice of logistics,” he said.



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