California verdict still out on bees versus mandarin rules

06/03/2009 06:12:00 PM
Don Schrack

FRESNO, Calif. — The 2009 mandarin bloom is over. It was the first bloom under new regulations designed to enable beekeepers and mandarin orange growers to coexist.

"The regs did nothing to solve the problem," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. "They were a total disappointment."

The problem: cross-pollination between seeded and seedless varieties. The seedless mandarins tend to grow seeds when bees visit both varieties.

After more than a year of meetings involving growers and beekeepers, the California Department of Food and Agriculture implemented a set of voluntary draft regulations that, among other things, required mandarin growers to register the locations of their groves by the end of January and beekeepers to register hive locations by March 1. The regulations apply only to the state's largest citrus growing counties: Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern.

"The comment period on those regulations expired April 13," said Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the state agency. "We're now evaluating those comments to determine whether any changes are needed."

A decision on changes, if any, could come in a few months, but state guidelines permit up to a year before the decision must be made, Lyle said. Whatever the decision, some mandarin grower-shippers are still seething.

"This wasn't a citrus industry-wide movement," said Roger Everett, vice president of the California State Beekeepers Association Inc., Hughson, and owner of Terra Bella Honey Co. Inc., Terra Bella. "It was more or less two large corporations, Paramount and Sun Pacific."

                                                              Don Schrack

Netted mandarin trees owned by Fowler Packing Co. Inc., Fowler, Calif., on company acreage near Fresno. The annual cost of the netting and the labor to install and remove the material is projected to approach $800 per acre, says a spokesman for Fowler Packing.

Delano-based Paramount Citrus Association owns more than 30,000 acres of California citrus groves. Annual citrus volume for Sun Pacific Shippers, Los Angeles, is more than 10 million cartons, according to the company's Web site.

The citrus industry's concern is not with the major grower-shippers but with the area's smaller operations, Nelsen said.

"The larger producers were able to find the netting to protect their fruit to a greater degree than the smaller grower," he said. "As a result, the smaller grower is running a greater risk of seed contamination."

Not cheap

Netting the groves is an expensive task. The netting, which covers trees from the ground up and was widely used for the first time this spring, costs about $1,700 per acre, said a spokesman for Fowler Packing Co. Inc., Fowler.

"Even with expensive, specialized equipment, it still takes six workers to net the trees," he said.

Fowler Packing hopes to reuse the netting for another few years. If the netting holds up for four seasons, Fowler Packing projects the annual cost of draping the groves will run about $800 per acre, the spokesman said.

Aside from registering the locations of hives, the regulations had little effect on beekeepers, said Woody DeHaven, owner for nearly 30 years of DeHaven Apiaries, Visalia. The regulations also had little effect on unnetted trees, he said.

"The bees know where the grocery store is, and they'll travel up to 5 miles from the hive," he said.

The potential for seeds in the mandarins ought not to have been a surprise to growers, Everett said. University of California researchers alerted the citrus industry to the potential problem more than a decade ago, he said, but it was the growing popularity of the so-called zipper oranges and the high f.o.b. prices they fetched that spurred growers to plant more and more of the mandarins over the past 15 years.

"Now they're like the guy who builds a house in a flood plain and then complains that his house flooded," Everett said.

Profit is a factor in the controversy, Nelsen said.

"The seedless mandarins are commanding $4 a carton more, but for the mandarins with seeds, the growers don't get their money back," he said.

Not all citrus grower-shippers are upset about the bee controversy. An unanswered question is whether the consumer is concerned about a seed or two, said Fred Berry, director of marketing for Mulholland Citrus, Orange Cove.

"Every year's a bit different. Bee pressures can vary," he said. "It has to do with weather, the timing of the bloom, where the orchards are located and what crops are grown around them."

For whatever reason, overall seediness was down last season compared to previous years, Berry said. Mulholland Citrus did net some groves this year, he said, but it is too early to tell whether the netting kept the bees from the mandarins.

Orange blossom honey superior

The citrus industry is vital to the beekeepers, because there is a difference in the taste of honey depending on the floral source, Everett said.

"My premium honey crop every year is my citrus honey," he said. "There are about 300,000 hives in the citrus belt."

The citrus belt runs roughly 150 miles from Arvin in the south to Madera in the north.

The bee-versus-mandarin controversy has hit some beekeepers in the wallet. DeHaven Apiaries lost five locations when the major growers threatened legal action against landowners of beehive sites and beekeepers, DeHaven said. Other landowners remained loyal.

"With very few exceptions, I've been on every location I sit on for 15 years or more," he said.

There is some debate whether fruit set is variable depending on whether there are bees in the area, Everett said. There will be fruit on the trees regardless of the presence of bees, he said.

Tango acreage increasing

The resolution to the conflict appears to be the tango, a seedless mandarin orange developed by University of California researchers and released to the industry in late 2006. The tango is rarely affected by cross-pollination.

"When the tango comes into more prominence, the netting should not be a factor," Berry said.

That is little consolation to mandarin growers, who may need to pull their groves and replace the trees with tangos, an expensive undertaking.



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