In 1985, "killer bees" landed in California's San Joaquin Valley, perpetuating what had become a serious worldwide buzz. These Africanized bees turned out to be more hype than anything else. Few people were killed, none of them here, and the media-driven hysteria faded.
Now, nearly three decades later, it's the bees that are being killed and the potential consequences to the Central Valley's agricultural economy -- indeed, ag economies everywhere -- are very real.
On Wednesday, a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that 31 percent of honeybee colonies died this winter, continuing a disturbing trend of bee deaths, known as colony collapse disorder, first detected in 2006. For Kern's multibillion-dollar agricultural economy, especially its almond growers, this is a big deal.
The 31 percent decline is worse than last season's 22 percent drop, and as Jeff Pettis, a bee research leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told The Wall Street Journal recently, "We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster." Honeybees perform the essential task of pollinating Kern's substantial almond crop. More than $20 billion of U.S. crops rely on bee pollination, and the almond harvest alone is valued at $4 billion. Take into account other agribusiness products that indirectly rely on honeybee pollination, such as food products produced by animals that feed on pollinated crops, and experts estimate the total economic value from bee-pollinated crops is closer to $40 billion.
California's largest almond grower, Bakersfield's Paramount Farming Co., told The Journal it prepared for the anticipated bee shortage and was able to secure just enough backup colonies to produce this year's crop.
A continuing decline would be economically devastating, resulting in lost jobs and increased prices to consumers. A worst-case scenario would be substantial crop losses.
No solution will be forthcoming until the cause of these colony collapses is found. The best place to start looking: humans' influence on the environment. Although researchers have identified a multitude of suspects, some connected to humans, some not, officials with the European Commission have come to believe it's a man-made problem, and they have zeroed in on a trio of pesticides believed to be contributing. Ironically, these particular pesticides, used heavily in Midwestern states where beehives are kept in warm months, are generally considered less harmful to the environment than many other pesticides.
U.S. officials are also looking into these particular pesticides, called neonicotinoids, but say they do not have the evidence to identify any specific culprits. The cause has eluded scientists for seven years and counting.
Once the cause is isolated, a scientific remedy will more easily follow. It may be as simple as controlling the amount or manner of neonicotinoid use, rather than an outright ban.
The EPA has started a review of neonicotinoids. It should act with urgency before too many more bees, and crops, are lost. The issue demands a high-priority response by government and industry.