Living with Insecticides in California


Insecticide poisoning is no longer a novelty to most beekeepers. When hives are placed in agricultural areas today, the fact that a certain amount of insecticide poisoning will occur is a foregone conclusion. If a beekeeper expects to get by with no loss whatever, he should not expect to place hives in agricultural areas in California. Living with insecticides means keeping annual insecticide damage to an apiary at a low enough level so that a net profit can still be made. This can be difficult but it is by no means an impossible task. There are many California beekeepers who make a profit on colonies in agricultural areas.

It is strange that some beekeepers who spend hour after hour inspecting their colonies for foulbrood will not devote a fraction of this amount of time to prevention on an insecticide loss that could be just as devastating as a foulbrood infection. Prevention of insecticide damage, just like requeening, should be an integral part of the management operation of the beekeeper who places hives in an area where insecticides are apt to be used. The number of honey bees killed by insecticides each year in California could easily be cut in half through more careful management practices on the part of the beekeeper.

Although distasteful to the independent-minded beekeeper, the adoption of defensive measures is often necessary to reduce bee poisoning to low levels. A danger here is that beekeepers will become so involved in developing defensive measures and putting them into practice that they will accept without questioning the system that makes such measures so necessary.

A major part of any bee-poisoning prevention program is anticipating potential problems before they arise. The beekeeper should make note of the crops within at least a mile radius of an intended apiary location and then should become familiar with the insecticide program for those crops (insecticide programs are available for all crops from the extension service or from local pesticide distributors). The beekeeper should keep with him at all times a list of the relative toxicity of different insecticides to honey bees and should carry extra copies for distribution to growers (current lists are obtainable from the U.S.D.A. or the state extension service). If materials hazardous to bees are recommended in the insecticide program of a crop in the area, the beekeeper should contact the growers involved and explain the problem to see if a satisfactory solution can be worked out. Ground rig spraying (vs. airplane) and night spraying of many toxic materials will often reduce bee poisoning to below economic levels.

If the beekeeper has bees on a pollination project, the growers of the crop to be pollinated should be prevailed upon to assure that all growers in the area do not apply potentially troublesome materials. If past experience has shown that insecticide programs compatible to honey bees cannot be worked out prior to the time of pollination, the beekeeper should inform the grower firmly but politely that he will not be able to furnish bees for pollination. This should be done at least 6 months in advance of the time the bees are needed so that the grower will have ample time to make other pollination arrangements.

The pollinating beekeeper who argues that this latter tactic would be business suicide may be right; however, it is unlikely that a grower would long be satisfied with the pollination services of a beekeeper who has moved into a situation that another beekeeper has walked out on. If the business “suicide” theory does hold water, maybe a quick death is preferable to a slow one. That a number of California bee operations are dying by the inch due to insecticides is a fact. When a beekeeper moves into a poisoning situation year after year as some do, the farmer can only conclude that he is not being hurt by insecticides.

Beekeepers also have to deal with insecticide problems as they may arise during the season. In California, beekeepers that follow the two simple rules of filing location cards with the county and legibly labeling hives with their name, address and phone number are given 48-hours notice of insecticide applications within a mile of their apiaries, if they request such notice. If the insecticide is one that might cause trouble to bees, then there are a number of choices open to the beekeeper. He can attempt to assure that night, ground-rig application is used, and that a spray is used rather than a dust; and he can attempt to get the dosage reduced or the material changed to a less toxic one. The beekeeper can only request such changes but if the bees are on a pollination project, his grower’s request will carry additional weight.

Some counties ban the use of certain materials highly toxic to bees during a period when bees are needed for pollination in an area. However, county regulations are not uniform throughout the state. It often requires a good deal of moral courage on the part of the County Agricultural Commissioner to set up a regulation that protects honey bees; such regulations restrict the farmer and insecticide firms in the county and benefit the beekeeper who usually lives in another county. County Agricultural Commissioners who have attempted to help beekeepers have been loudly criticized by farmers and have received surprisingly little appreciation from beekeepers.

Hives can be protected by covering them with polyethylene film or with wet burlap but such methods are not effective against some of the highly toxic materials, and are not widely used in California. Moving the hives from the danger area is the surest way to avoid damage. If more than 48 hours are required to move, a court injunction can halt the spraying but this device is rarely used.

Each insecticide notification represents a different problem. There is currently not enough information available for a beekeeper to arrive at a decision as to what action to take after receiving notification. The beekeeper, of course, must get all the facts before arriving at a decision; for instance, parathion can cause much less damage than DDT if the former is used as a spray on 1 acre and the latter as a dust on 1,000 acres. Information required by the beekeeper is: material to be used, dosage, whether spray or dust, method of application, time of day of application, acreage to be treated, proximity of acreage to the hives, attractiveness of sprayed crop, acreage of crops in the area and proximity to the hives, temperature, humidity, wind velocity and direction, the number of colonies in the area, strength of the colonies and storage space in the colonies. An expert would have trouble weighing all these factors and it is not surprising that when three different beekeepers in an area are notified of a spray application, one will move his hives, one will leave them as is and the third will cover them. This causes farmers and applicators to wonder if beekeepers know their business. Some standardized formula should be devised that would predict bee losses in a given situation in order to determine whether or not hives should be moved out of an area to be treated with insecticides. With enough reliable data, a computer decision could be worked out.

Communicating the Problem

Every researcher who has worked on bee poisoning has soon recognized the need for greater farmer-beekeeper communication as a key factor in reducing insecticide losses. Many beekeepers feel that farmers and applicators have no concern for bee losses while the farmer, whose operation already is restricted by numerous regulations, often sees the beekeeper as representing one more restriction. The beekeeping industry has not done an adequate job of communicating its problem to the farmer and to the general public.

Since the publication of “Silent Spring,” the insecticide industry, with an assist from many research entomologists, has done an effective and factual public relations job on the benefits of insecticides to mankind and to the better life. It is unfortunate that some entomologists in criticizing “Silent Spring” from a scientific point of view, did not choose to stress the compelling overall message of the book. Today there is a feeling on the part of the public that “insecticide problems” are under control. Since the book made little mention of bee poisoning, there is little awareness that such problems exist. The beekeeping industry should stress the theme that honey bees are a natural resource to be protected for the benefit of agriculture and the consumer.

Few farmers or applicators have seen the results of a serious case of bee poisoning. One California grower when confronted with the sight and smell of neat piles of dead and dying bees was genuinely shocked and from then on made very effort to cooperate with local beekeepers. Beekeepers in turn should appreciate the pressure the farmer is under to control insects. An exchange of speakers between local farmer and beekeeper groups would be helpful.

Most articles on bee poisoning and the value of bees to agriculture are seen in bee journals while they would do far more good in farm journals or general circulation magazines. Ward Stanger, extension apiculturist at the University of California, is doing a superior job in this regard, however, beekeeper groups at the local level in all states should provide an active public information service for their local news media. Newspapers, T-V and radio are always looking for news stories and beekeeper groups should have no trouble in getting information accepted.

A northern California radio station caught the ears of listeners with the announcement that 100,000 bees had just been murdered . . . . insecticide had drifted over four hives killing their inhabitants. Thousands of bee colonies are poisoned every year with no public notice whatever. T-V cameras could record bee poisoning that was not caused by a beekeeper’s carelessness or his not abiding by regulations.

At a meeting of pesticide applicators in one county, shortly after “Silent Spring” appeared, a member was assigned to write one short factual article a week for the local newspaper on the benefits of insecticides. Local bee groups could also provide such a service based on the benefits of bees. Interested in getting favorable legislation passed, all congressmen are diligent readers of hometown newspapers and one short factual article can be more effective than a hundred form letters from special interest groups. On the national scale, the beekeeping industry should commission a popular writer of national reputation, with technical service from a professional entomologist, to write “The Silent Bee” either in book form or as an article for a popular magazine.

At least in California, increased legislation is not a remedy to the bee poisoning problem; California laws protecting beekeepers generally are good yet bee poisoning continues. On the national level the most beneficial legislation would be to require the statement on each insecticide container in specific sized letters, and in all advertisements, the toxicity of the material to honey bees.

Lawsuits by beekeepers against growers and applicators also are not the answer although they should be used when all other means have failed. Lawsuits imply coercion and coercion has never been a long-term solution to any problem. Any long-term solution to the bee poinsoning problem will require the willing cooperation of the farming community. From a practical standpoint, it is very difficult to gather sufficient legally acceptable evidence even in the most obvious cases of bee poisoning and, as a result, very few cases have been brought to court.


California is usually a year or so ahead of other states in agricultural technology. Beekeepers in other states should look to California for a preview of future insecticide problems. The present outlook in California is grim although not unbearable for the prepared beekeeper. Some California beekeepers have solved the problem by staying clear of agricultural areas but all cannot do this. For those who enter the agricultural areas, it is unfortunate that being prepared often means adopting the tactics of the rabbit who is being chased by the wolf.

As for the future, beekeepers will continue to read about methods of insect control that get away from the use of highly toxic insecticides just as they have read about them for the past 10 years. But from past experience, they should not put too much hope on large-scale application of these methods. With careful management, however, the prepared beekeeper can continue to bring hives into agricultural areas and still make a profit on these colonies.

There is no question that insect control methods that are compatible with beekeeping will eventually be used to the exclusion of present methods. The question is whether this will happen in the lifetime of today’s beekeeper? The beekeeper who is beset with insecticide problems today can take little solace in the fact that he is a victim of the times . . . . he was born at the wrong time.