Computer technology designed to protect honeybees from chemical threats is about to get its first big test as beekeepers from across the country prepare to descend on Central Valley almond orchards for the world's largest annual pollination event.
Automating a regulatory process that used to be done manually, a smartphone app introduced statewide last fall lets beekeepers register their colonies' location so that companies applying pesticides and fungicides know not to spray or fumigate nearby during daytime hours when bees tend to be outside their hives.
The software, called BeeWhere, has been embraced by state and industry officials as a relatively easy way to help address the colony die-offs that have driven bee-rental prices sharply higher during the past decade and raised concerns about agriculture's ability to produce crops requiring pollination.
The challenge now is spreading awareness of the app among the many beekeepers who travel to the valley every year. Some remain averse to technology, preferring to turn over information on paper.
"I think overall it's a good program. But for someone who's not really tech-savvy like me, … it's not that easy," Bakersfield bee broker Joe Traynor said.
Protecting bees has become a high priority in Kern, California's almond leader in recent years. Sales of the nut brought county farmers an estimated $1.2 billion in 2018, second only to table grapes' $1.5 billion in sales.
By state law, chemicals deemed to be a threat to honeybees may not be applied within one mile of a bee colony, recognizable during February's almond bloom coming as a white box — usually a series of them, actually — sitting on the edge of local almond orchards. The only exception is at night, when bees huddle in their hive, safe from chemical applications.
County ag officials used to keep track of bee colonies' locations by sticking pins in a map. Over time, different counties developed their own computer programs to make that process more efficient. But until last year, no uniform software was available statewide.
That changed last year as a result of cooperation among the Almond Board of California, the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association, the California Association of Pest Control Advisors and the California State Beekeepers Association.
The program they sponsored aligns with other data systems used by regulators to coordinate with chemical applicators and others in the industry.
It's still too early to say definitively whether the software will finally resolve a bee threat that regulators say has diminished in recent years, said Josette Lewis, who oversees research for the almond board.
"We certainly hope that it'll make it easier for beekeepers and pesticide applicators to communicate," she said. "That is the goal."
Lewis added that the board continues to reach out to beekeepers and encourage them to register to use the software. She also said that human behavior, not computer software, remains the primary focus of the industry's efforts to protect bees.
She further noted that the group additionally promotes "integrated pest management" practices that reduce the need for chemical treatments.
Kern's pesticide use enforcement supervisor, Monica Weinberg, said BeeWhere has made it much easier for pesticide and fungicide applicators to avoid accidentally hitting bees. The software eliminates the need for beekeepers to make trips to county offices informing local regulators where their colonies are.
"They can just do it on their phone as they're moving," she said.
However, chemical applicators are still required to do a visual check for bee colonies before spraying or fumigating, she said.
The expectation is that the program will lead to increased regulatory compliance, she added.
"The feedback we're getting so far is really good," she said.
Kern County beekeeper and nut-grower Joe Romance said he sees the software as a step in the right direction that can reduce or eliminate human error in the bee-tracking process. But he remains skittish.
"I'm an older guy. I'm 64, so I'm not really savvy to this computer age sometimes," he said. "It probably works good, but I think I'll let my son do it."
The software also works on laptops and other computers. It is available online at beewherecalifornia.com