Artists walk for bees in almond orchards in Stanislaus, elsewhere

Three Oregon artists dressed as Melissae, ancient priestesses of the bee, embarked this week on a 100-mile walk along California almond orchards to draw attention to the honeybee die-off crisis.

In gold-colored robes and face paint, the women were nearly impossible for passing motorists not to see. They began their day’s 20-mile route Wednesday on Montpelier Road south of Hickman and headed to Denair. It was their only day in Stanislaus County, as the rest of the five-day project will take them to Chowchilla, Selma, Wasco and Lost Hills.

Eugene-based painter Meesha Goldberg is director of the project, Equilibrium Rites, which she calls “part performance art, part ritual, part activism.” She said she picked the areas to walk through because on Google Maps because she could see they were densely planted with almond orchards. And of the Hickman-to-Denair area, she added, “when I came to visit a couple of months ago, it was very beautiful and green.” Now, it’s even more beautiful with the almond trees in blossom.

Goldberg, poet Joanna Brook, and painter and herbalist Kaylee Holz have a support crew driving along as they walk and were to be joined in their march this week by three others, including beekeeper Sharon Schmidt of the Oregon Honey Festival. From the walk will come a short-form video to be posted in March or April at and a series of paintings to be exhibited in August at The Hive Gallery in Los Angeles.

All is to raise awareness of what Goldberg calls history’s greatest gathering of honeybees at a time when hive populations are facing high die-off rates and California remains in the grip of drought. This month, about 80 billion honeybees – 85 percent of the nation’s bee population – are being trucked into the Central Valley to pollinate nearly 1 million acres of almonds trees, she said.

Between April 2014 and May 2015, beekeepers lost 42 percent of their colonies, the second-highest rate in nine years, according to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Government reports may even be conservative, said Los Banos beekeeper Gene Brandi, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. A lot of beekeepers last year lost well above 40 percent, he said.

Bringing the hives to California’s orchards subjects the already fragile honeybee population to pesticides, fungicides, poor nutrition on the road and the spread of disease among hives, Goldberg said.

The artists said their intent with Equilibrium Rites is to cast a light on the questionable wisdom of moving bees all over the country. “We’re also seeing the impact of monoculture, the mass production of the exact same crop in the same place year after year,” Holz said.

“We’re not here to offer a solution, but more of bearing witness,” Goldberg said. “There’s no easy solution to the crisis of bees, but we all have a responsibility to engage, and this is the way we’re choosing to engage, with what we know – creating artwork, images, experiences we can share with others.”

Goldberg said the project also is not about pointing fingers, and the issue really isn’t polarizing. Neither growers nor beekeepers want to see colonies struggle, she said, because the livelihood of each group depends on the insects.

“I love to eat almonds and I love to eat honey, both on a nearly daily basis,” Brook added. “We’re doing what I hope more people would do: see where their food is coming from and realize we are totally dependent on these insects.”

Brandi said the numbers the artists put forward are accurate.

“Take the roughly 2.7 million colonies we have during peak season and deduct wintertime losses,” he said. “That’s what’s available, and if you take what’s available, it’s between 80 and 90 percent” being brought to California for almond pollination.

It’s also true that when you place bees in an almond orchard, there’s the potential for exposure to fungicides and other compounds, said Brandi, who’s been keeping bees for more than 40 years.

“But I gotta tell you, the Almond Board of California, based right there in Modesto, has come up with some best management practices for almond growers to use,” he said.

Those BMPs include, among other things, avoiding tank-mixing products and not applying fungicide when bees are out foraging, Brandi said. They’ve made an improvement and will have more impact if more growers abide by the practices.

Regarding pesticides, he said, “We’d love to see these products that are of issue have some sort of a bee warning on their label, which they do not.”

Research that led to labeling looked only at risk to adult bee mortality, Brandi said, but products that do not kill adult bees still can impact colony success. Normally, the queen lays an egg and, after the larva and pupa stages, a worker bee should hatch successfully in a few weeks.

“Some of these products can interrupt the development process of the baby bees,” he said, “hurting the ability of the colony to increase or even maintain its population.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327