Calif. beekeepers fear no-fly zones

Calif. beekeepers fear no-fly zones
VISALIA, Calif. (AP)- In this patchwork of fruit and nut fields in California's citrus belt, honey and oranges don't mix anymore.

Growers of clementines and other seedless oranges gaining popularity among consumers say cross-pollination by bees is creating unwanted seeds in their crops. They want to establish no-fly zones to end the apian invasions.

But beekeepers aren't buzzing off. For decades, their bees were tolerated in the sprawling orchards as they turned orange blossom nectar into dependable honey crops. The beekeepers fear no-fly zones _ established by keeping hives miles from orchards _ could put them out of business.

"Half of my honey income is what I make in the oranges," David Bradshaw, 50, said at the honey-processing operation started by his father, Howard Bradshaw, in the early 1970s. A couple miles away are newly planted clementine orchards.

The conflict comes as growers try to cash in on the growing national hunger for the convenience of seedless produce, and beekeepers struggle to recover from years of erratic production caused by bad weather and mite-infested hives.

Watching nervously from the sidelines are growers of other crops who need healthy bees to pollinate their plants.

On Dec. 12, Central Valley beekeepers will meet with the trade group California Citrus Mutual to hear the organization's proposal for bee-free areas.

"I sort of dread the conflict between the beekeepers and citrus growers," Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner Gary Kunkel said. "You get strong feelings on both sides."

During most years, California competes with North Dakota to lead the nation in honey production. But the industry in general is having trouble keeping up with national honey consumption, which jumped an estimated 10 percent between 2000 and 2005.

Domestic production, however, dipped to about 175 million pounds in 2005 from 220 million pounds in 2000, according to the U.S, Department of Agriculture. Yields in 2006 were expected to be even lower.

National Honey Board chief executive Bruce Boynton said hives have suffered in recent years as dry weather kept flowers from blooming and outbreaks of parasitic mites infested bee larvae.

Losing access to orange groves would decrease honey yields even further and weaken bee colonies needed for pollinating other crops, he said.

"People are kind of watching this one because it could have a devastating effect across the country if beekeepers lose out on this issue," Boynton said.

But major corporate growers such as Paramount Citrus Inc. and Sun Pacific Inc. have invested heavily in clementine and mandarin trees to meet demand for the easy-to-peel fruit that doesn't produce mouthfuls of seeds.

In 2005, about 18,500 acres in California were planted with the seedless varieties, up from about 7,000 acres three years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"The consumers have said, just like you have seedless watermelons and seedless grapes, they want seedless clementines, and we're trying to settle that demand," California Citrus Mutual president Joel Nelson said.

However, efforts to meet the demand "are being thwarted by members of the bee industry," he said.

The association wants beekeepers to keep insects away from protected areas during times when the crops are at risk of being cross-pollinated.

A lawyer for Paramount Citrus, one of world's largest clementine growers, sent letters threatening to sue if bees were allowed within two miles of crops.

"Paramount will not tolerate any damage caused by bees that trespass and interfere with Paramount's use and enjoyment of its land, and threaten to destroy its crop," attorney Andrew E. Asch wrote in the letter to landowners.

Neither Asch nor Paramount spokeswoman Fiona Possell returned calls seeking comment.

Gene Brandi, legislative chairman for the California State Beekeepers Association, estimated that about 250,000 bee colonies are now located within two miles of Paramount groves.

Howard Bradshaw, like many beekeepers, said his family moved to the Central Valley from Southern California after residential development led to the bulldozing of citrus orchards.

"I just feel that my area is shrinking," Bradshaw said. "I think, where am I going to put my bees?"