About 100 people zipped themselves into beekeeping suits last week to see what’s troubling the hives.
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation held an event near Modesto that dealt with whether pest-control chemicals are harming the bees that pollinate many crops in the state and beyond.
A few commercial beekeepers showed how to examine the colonies for problems, which might include disease, malnutrition, parasites, pesticide damage and more. The lessons were mainly for pesticide regulators from the state agency and 16 county agricultural commissioner’s offices, all of them dressed in the protective garb.
“From our perspective, we are trying to do everything we can to protect the bees,” said Charlotte Fadipe, spokeswoman for the state agency.
The pesticide issue is sensitive. On the one hand, most farmers rely on the chemicals to ensure that insects do not reduce their crops. On the other hand, many crops rely on pollination by bees, which allows their blossoms to develop into almonds, apples, cucumbers, melons and many other foods.
Beekeepers around the nation have reported major losses from a still-unsolved malady called colony collapse disorder. They have always lost some bees from one year to the next, but the disorder has increased the toll.
“I don’t know how we sustain it, I really don’t,” said Orin Johnson, a beekeeper in the Hughson area.
The drought this year has compounded the problem by drying up plants that usually provide pollen and nectar for bees to eat, he said. He is feeding supplements and taking other steps to help ensure healthy numbers in time for the 2015 pollination cycle, which will start in February with almonds.
Louie Guerra, a supervising environmental scientist with the state agency, showed how to look for pesticide traces by swabbing the wooden boxes that hold the colonies. He also held up a plastic bag holding 7 ounces of dead bees, which also can be tested for the chemicals.
The event took place at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center, off Crows Landing Road west of Ceres.
Milton O’Haire, the county’s agricultural commissioner, said his staff has found little evidence of pesticide damage to bees. People who spray are required to give notice to beekeepers in the vicinity, so the boxes can be moved if needed.
“We had only one complaint this year during the entire bee season,” O’Haire said.
Most of the people on hand Thursday wore full beekeeper regalia – coveralls, gloves, hats and face nets designed to fend off every single insect. Some of the more seasoned experts worked with less protection.
The novices also got warnings about what not to wear, including perfume or scented lotion.
“If you smell like a flower, they’re going to come at you like a flower,” said Fred Michaelis, a biologist who works with bees at the Merced County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.