Why Are Thousands Of Bees Dying In California?

Beekeepers in California have been urged to pull their hives from almond groves following huge die-offs — likely from pesticides and fungicides from the groves and neighboring fields.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bees have been dying off in big numbers for years, creating problems for the agriculture industry, also not so good for the bees. This year, tens of thousands of bees have mysteriously died after pollinating almond farms in California. The Environmental Protection Agency is looking into whether pesticides are to blame.

NPR's Sam Sanders reports.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Reports say up to 80,000 colonies were hurt in almond farms throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Eric Mussen studies beekeeping at the University of California Davis.

ERIC MUSSEN: This is not normal. We haven't been seeing this for years and years and years. We used to see a touch of it here and there. But it's becoming more frequent.

SANDERS: Beekeepers are blaming the most recent die-offs on something called tank mixing. Mussen says that's when farmers apply more than one pesticide or insecticide at once.

MUSSEN: Growers don't want to go through the fields time after time after time, putting on different pesticide materials. So they basically tank mix them all together and put them on.

SANDERS: Beekeepers met recently with the Environmental Protection Agency. They're asking the agency for more thorough labeling on pesticides. And they want more restrictions on the times of day pesticides are spread. The EPA says they're considering changes.

California bee broker Denise Qualls says she's lost about 10 percent of her bees in almond farms this year. She thinks pesticides are to blame.

DENISE QUALLS: There are so many chemicals out there it's unbelievable.

SANDERS: But Qualls also says some other variables might be at play, like drought or malnutrition. And because the bees move from crop to crop all over the country, it's often hard to tell just where a problem starts.

The recent deaths are just the latest problem for the bee industry. Since 2006, the biggest threat was Colony Collapse Disorder - when bees just disappeared, leaving only a queen bee and a few workers in a hive.

In spite of all these problems, Qualls does think the bee industry will recover.

QUALLS: The beekeepers do a fabulous job in rebuilding their hives over the course of the next year.

SANDERS: Every year, bees pollinate about $18 billion worth of crops in America.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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