Beleaguered Florida Citrus Industry Hits New Snags

Florida's citrus industry is having more problems. Growers are already plagued by crop diseases like canker and greening. Now, an effort to control greening has led to the deaths of millions of bees.

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Florida's citrus industry has a new problem. It's long wrestled with crop diseases like canker and greening. But the effort to halt greening has killed millions of bees, as growers have increased their use of pesticides.

And that, in turn, is straining relationships between citrus farmers and their longtime partners, beekeepers. Here's Ashley Lopez of member station WGCU.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Harold Curtis runs an 1,100-acre grove in southwest Florida. He walks through the rows of trees, packed full of plump, juicy oranges.

HAROLD CURTIS: This is all juice fruit. And this is a Hamlin, which will start being picked around the first of December.

LOPEZ: Growing oranges is hard work, and Curtis says it's even harder these days. Citrus greening, which is caused by bacteria, has devastated his grove for a couple years now.

CURTIS: I mean, you can see, a lot of this fruit right here on the ground, that's greening.

LOPEZ: As he talks, Curtis kicks around shrunken oranges. Greening makes the fruit ripen quickly and fall before they're grown. It can also kill the tree. Curtis says the only way to save his grove is to spray pesticides to kill off insects called psyllids that spread the greening.

CURTIS: Before you had all these greening problems and canker problems, you know, you were probably spraying maybe three times a year, where now some of these people are spraying 10 times a year.

LOPEZ: This year, the state of Florida fined a big grower $1,500 after the overuse of a pesticide killed millions of bees. The incident strained the relationship between citrus growers and beekeepers. Beekeepers from all over country put their hives in orange groves during winter to keep their bees alive. The bees, in turn, also help pollinate the trees. They also produce the popular orange blossom honey.

Ron Hamel of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association says the industry needs bees and the bees need the trees.

RON HAMEL: They are still very important and the industry looks at them as working symbiotically with the growers to live together in that grove environment.

LOPEZ: In an effort to ensure there isn't another bee-killing incident, Florida officials have told both industries to coordinate better. Like citrus, pollination is big business. Keith Councell is president of Florida's Beekeepers Association. He says their organization is concerned.

KEITH COUNCELL: We're losing bees faster than we can replace them. So if we have to move our bees away from the citrus groves for a while until they can correct this problem, that's what we are going to do.

LOPEZ: Florida is the nation's largest citrus producer, worth at least $9 billion annually. By some estimates, greening has cost the state's growers almost a billion dollars and the bee deaths just make the problem worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEES BUZZING)

LOPEZ: Rene Pratt runs a honey store in the city of LaBelle, surrounded by orange groves. Pratt says she's one of a few commercial beekeepers still in the area. She and other beekeepers have had a tough couple of years.

RENE PRATT: Like everything else, we have to overcome it and we have to work together. And we've been very fortunate with our growers that we have worked and have a good relationship with them. But they have to take care of their fruit and vegetables, and we have to take care of our honeybees.

LOPEZ: Several weeks ago, Florida's Agriculture chief, Adam Putnam, sat down with business leaders from both industries. He said preserving the relationship between citrus and beekeepers is one of his biggest priorities.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Fort Myers.

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