Friday, January 9, 2009

The Debate over Bees and Seedless Crops.

As we generally learn in primary school, bees collect pollen to make honey, and cross-pollinate the flowers they visit. Bees are so important to agriculture, that California law provides for "regulations necessary to minimize the hazard to bees, while still providing for the reasonable and necessary application of pesticides toxic to bees to blossoming plant."(1)

A legal battle, however, is now taking flight in central California challenging the role of the bees, as in the birds and the bees. Growers of many crops, in and out of California, hire beekeepers, in the fashion of nomads of the nation, to bring in bees for crop pollination.(2) The beekeepers need the pollen for the bees to make honey so this is one of nature's win-win symbiosis.

Some citrus and melon growers, however, raise seedless fruit, for which consumers will pay a premium to enjoy, but which happens only if the bees do not pollinate the fruit. Pollination causes seeds, so at contest, then, is that the seedless crop growers do not want bees around their crops, but other growers and the beekeepers want them present.

Caught in the middle are the bees, who besides the income role of pollination and honey, are suffering from colony collapse, a bee disorder of undetermined cause that results in death of 10% to 90% of a bee colony.(3) A bee ban would aid citrus growers, but cause hardship to other crop growers, and decrease the livelihood of the bees.

Mediation efforts have so far been unsuccessful. The State of California is proposing notice regulation to encourage beekeepers to move their hives during pesticide spraying.(4) Unfortunately, this soft-touch of the debate does not include the voice of the consumer, so I'll add my two-bits worth.

First, I enjoy honey - a lot. Honey improves toast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and of course, baklava is not baklava without honey and nuts. And yes, I enjoy seedless fruit. I had three seedless tangerines the morning of the day before I read about the issue. But then, watermelon seed-spitting contests are futile without large seeds, so who needs seedless watermelons?

In the balance, is the cost of a resolution. The bee-side forces suggest that the seedless growers place nets over the trees. A fair solution, except that trying to net over 31,000 acres of growing trees to block out bees would require fishing-trawler-style nets, and thousands of hours of effort, or a lot of helicopter time. In addition, the small net matrix might affect photosynthesis of the plants, which requires a balance of sun and water.(5) Those of us from northern latitudes are familiar with the effect of reduced sunlight, which results in smaller plants and crops. Consumers are less likely to pay more for less, especially in this economic condition.

The seedless camp has suggested that beekeepers reduce the number of bees, which in turn, reduces the distance that the bees travel. In this way the bees would be less likely to enter seedless orchards. One option is for growers to change crops, but this is also expensive and time-consuming, especially in the face that some growers recently switched to seedless crops after the market premium made its glowing sunrise.(6)

In reality, the consumers will lose this battle over seedless crops, nuts and the bees. The price of something, if not everything, will rise. From this viewpoint, two options are present.

One is to do nothing. If growers are successful in raising seedless crop prices due to losses, then growers would accommodate losses by increasing seedless acreage, which they would likely would do anyway to earn the premium. On the other hand, the economy may drive premium purchases down anyway, so the reduction in yield will help keep prices up.

Another option, and I'll admit to proposing it only if it is popular, is to provide for a minor subsidy to seedless growers who lose seedless crops to bee incursion. A penny or two honey bottle (t-word) or a nut package (t-word) would aid seedless growers in expenses to keep growing seedless crops. Overall, however, my economic background and arguments suggest that the first proposal seems the better solution.

So, and I hate to admit it, the notice regulation by the California Department of Food and Agriculture may be the best solution. The beekeepers will either move or reduce their hives, as the seedless growers want, or the bee-favoring growers will pay to compensate the beekeepers for their pesticide losses. The seedless growers already get a market premium for their product, so any bee incursion loss is either de minimis, or gets accounted for in the market premium.


(1) Cal. Food & Ag Code S 29102(a).
(2) Tangerine growers tell beekeepers to buzz off, Tracie Cone, Associated Press, 1/9/2009,
(3) See e.g., Questions and Answers: Colony Collapse Disorder, U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service, Last Modified: 05/29/2008.
(4) Tangerine growers tell beekeepers to buzz off, Tracie Cone, Associated Press, 1/9/2009,
(5) Scientists Decode How Plants Avoid Sunburn, ScienceDaily, July 20, 2006,­ /releases/2006/07/060720094251.htm.
(6) Tangerine growers tell beekeepers to buzz off, Tracie Cone, Associated Press, 1/9/2009,

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