BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
A local beekeeper is suing a crop duster company, saying bees worth more than $50,000 died as a result of the business failing to follow proper pesticide usage procedures.
The beekeeper, Bronco Bee Co., is seeking damages in excess of $25,000 in a complaint that alleges Wheeler Ridge Aviation twice sprayed cotton fields where its bees were foraging without notifying the beekeeper beforehand as the law requires. The owner of Wheeler Ridge, Gerald Smith, and a pilot, Darvin Boles, are also listed as defendants.
"In doing the acts herein complained of defendants acted willfully, maliciously and in complete disregard of humanity," the lawsuit reads.
Lawyers for both Bronco and the defendants could not be reached for comment over the course of two days.
The first incident was Aug. 13, 2011, at a cotton field on the southwest corner of Old River and Copus roads, the lawsuit alleges. About one-quarter mile away, Bronco had 192 hives. At about 9 a.m. that day while the bees were foraging in the field, Wheeler Ridge sprayed Lorsban, a pesticide that the label warns is highly toxic to bees.
All of the bees that were out foraging died that day, according to the lawsuit. As a result, Bronco says it lost 44 days of honey production and almond pollination fees.
The second incident, the lawsuit says, was nearly two weeks later, Aug. 25, 2011. The location was a different set of hives also near Old River and Copus. There, Bronco had 182 hives. At about 8:30 a.m. that day while the bees were again foraging in the cotton field, Wheeler Ridge sprayed Assail 70WP, another pesticide known to be toxic to bees.
Again, all of the bees that were out foraging died. This time, 34 days of honey production were lost, as well as almond pollination fees, according to the lawsuit.
In both cases, the suit alleges Wheeler Ridge failed to notify Bronco of the spraying beforehand even though Bronco's hives were registered with the county. California law states that anyone intending to spray pesticides known to be toxic to bees must notify any registered beekeepers within one mile of the application site.
The Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards fined Wheeler Ridge $250 for the second incident, according to the lawsuit.
Pollinating almonds, which the suit says Bronco was unable to do, is typically the most lucrative business for beekeepers, said Eric Mussen, an entomology professor at the University of California, Davis. If beekeepers make $220 to rent out a colony, $150 of that comes from almond pollination, he said.
The bee population across the nation has been dwindling. There is no single factor to blame, Mussen said. But, on average, 10 percent of commercial bee colonies in California are killed by pesticides, he said.
The notification law was put in place to give time for beekeepers to move their hives before pesticides are sprayed. But typically 83 percent of beekeepers take no action after being notified, Mussen said. "Many times beekeepers just take the lump," he said.
Mussen added that when pesticides do kill bees, it's not because the crop dusters mean for that to happen. Sometimes, accidents happen, he said.
Should the bee population continue declining and crops not get pollinated, the crop yield will fall and the price of those commodities will rise.
But what tends to worry beekeepers more, Mussen said, is losing something they care deeply about.
For the beekeepers, "the bees are like family," he said. "It's a big group that they're trying to keep going."
The next hearing for this case, filed in April, will be Oct. 22.