Where Have All the Honeybees Gone?


Santa Barbara Hives Facing the Dangers of Pesticides

by Krista Harris

I am standing in front of the beehive that my neighbor and I have shared the care and maintenance of for the past couple years. The hive is empty. The bees are gone. We started our amateur beekeeping a couple years ago with help from local beekeepers Kim Crane and Paul Cronshaw. We grew attached to our bees and the honey we occasionally harvested. But now they are gone, and we don’t really know why.

Over the last few years the plight of the bees, and the topic of Colony Collapse Disorder, has become the subject of many articles and documentaries. In the films Vanishing of the Bees and Queen of the Sun, the subject of systemic pesticides is brought up as a possible cause for the disappearance of the bees. And although there are many factors that can lead to the loss of a hive, the case against the use of pesticides is mounting.

In October 2012 something happened that galvanized Santa Barbara County beekeepers. Within a 1.5-mile radius in Montecito, 16 hives were lost. Concerned beekeepers sent a sample to the lab at Penn State University for testing. The results? The bees had been exposed to a cocktail of highly toxic pesticides. The results showed chemicals such as bifenthrin, chlorpyrifos, cyhalothrin and fipronil. These are chemicals that are used in agricultural and household pesticide products.

There are many products that consumers can readily buy that include these chemicals. But do people realize that spraying their garden to eliminate ants, aphids, fleas, flies and a whole range of annoying insects can have a devastating effect on bees?

Research has begun to show that if bees are subjected to even low levels of insecticides—not enough to kill them outright—they damage the bees’ ability to navigate and return to their hive. Low doses might also inhibit their growth and their ability to produce queens.

This is not just a problem for local backyard beekeepers. Honeybees are critical for the pollination of agricultural crops. According to a United Nations report, of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees. The European Union has just recently placed a two-year ban on using a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, based on a study by the European Food Safety Authority, which found in January that the pesticides posed a risk to the health of bees.

Here in the United States a group of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups have filed a lawsuit in a Federal District Court against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides.

Members of the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association have realized that they need to do something locally. “In the last few months we have lost at least 18 hives in this community alone, so Colony Collapse Disorder is happening right here, right now in Santa Barbara County,” states Montecito resident and organic gardener Randi Miller. “If it continues along its current trajectory, it will be devastating for us all. Together, we have to begin putting resources behind finding safe, nontoxic alternatives.”

Todd Bebb, vice president of the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association, would like to see our local beekeepers take a proactive approach. “Nobody is providing education to the public about pesticide use and its affects on the bees,” he explains. “The Beekeepers Association has started a Pesticide Awareness Program designed to change that.”

Citrus or Bees?

However, now there is another threat to our local bees. It’s a tiny insect about the size of an aphid called the Asian citrus psyllid. This little insect doesn’t directly harm bees. It simply feeds on the citrus leaves, but it can carry a lethal bacteria. Citrus trees that are infected by the bacteria can contract a disease that most people have no idea how to pronounce called Huanglongbing, also known as Citrus Greening Disease. It’s fatal to the tree, and there is no known cure. In the quest to eradicate the insect and the disease, regulatory agencies turn to chemical pesticides.

From Asia to Florida, the Asian citrus psyllid has spread through the Southwest and is now in California. In late 2012 it was detected in Santa Barbara County. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s treatment plan includes spraying the foliage with cyfluthrin, a contact insecticide and/or using Merit, the brand name for the systemic insecticide imidacloprid, on the soil underneath the plants.

Both are toxic to bees and should not be applied when trees are blooming. But the fear of losing our commercial citrus crop has prompted some officials to initiate treatment programs in the spring and summer when trees are still blooming (even pesticide labels say not to apply when trees are in bloom). Spraying and soil treatment has already occurred in Santa Maria.

Local beekeepers would like to see
Santa Barbara County become a leader
in protecting our local honeybees
from all sorts of chemical threats.

Spraying may sound worse, but applying imidaclopred to the soil, as they did recently in Goleta, is not a safer alternative. The pesticide is taken up by the roots and found in the nectar of the blossoms for up to a year or more, depending on the soil pH.

There are numerous research articles published in peer-reviewed journals that point to the dangerous effects of imidacloprid on bees. In 2012, research done at UC San Diego found that that small amounts of imidacloprid, comparable to what they would receive in nectar, showed behavior changes. The bees refused nectars of lower sweetness and thus reduced their ability to feed their colony. It also dramatically affected their ability to communicate where food can be obtained to the rest of the hive. Imidacloprid is toxic to birds, worms and aquatic life in addition to bees and other pollinators.

The irony is that by using pesticides to save the citrus trees, we may decrease the yield on those very trees. The added irony is that there is no clear evidence that the pesticides can completely eradicate the psyllid. And in Florida the insects are developing resistance to some of the pesticides being used.

The Case for Alternatives

Citrus trees are clearly in danger, as are the bees. So, what are the alternatives to pesticides? A specific type of parasitic wasp, which feeds on the psyllid, has been released in Los Angeles and other Southern California counties by UC researchers. But it can take years before those parasitic wasps are available commercially.

Yet there are other alternatives to the pesticide spraying. A USDA research report found “Soaps may be effective as an alternative to conventional pesticides to manage psyllid adults and nymphs and in areas where conventional pesticides cannot be used, such as organic groves and urban landscapes.” And lady beetles can be very effective against psyllids.

Another option is that nets can be used to protect citrus trees that haven’t been affected by the psyllid. Monitoring, quarantines and removing trees that have been infected by the disease are all part of a comprehensive approach that doesn’t rely on pesticides.

And in the meantime, what can beekeepers do to protect their hives? Individuals can opt out of pesticide application in their own backyard, but bees forage within a 2.5- to 4-mile radius. Bees are not protected unless whole neighborhoods opt out.

Awareness may be the single most important factor in this issue right now. When the State posts notices on people’s doors that it is going to apply pesticides, the notices don’t state that it is optional. But, for now at least, it is.

In the recent Goleta treatment, despite very little time given to educate neighbors about the alternatives, approximately 50% of the households opted out (286 properties in Goleta treatment area: 110 properties were treated, 106 refused treatment, the balance did not have citrus). We can only imagine what the rate would have been if everyone had been well informed. Unfortunately the State has said they will enforce mandatory treatment if they find the disease (not just the psyllid) present in the County. This is why local beekeepers would like to see Santa Barbara County become a leader in protecting our local honeybees from all sorts of chemical threats.

Unfortunately we have a long way to go before State officials see the merit of using alternatives to pesticides. The chemical companies that make pesticides are extremely embedded in our regulatory system. And it’s in their best interest to keep their products on shelves and in use.

It may be up to consumers to opt out and to stop buying products that are toxic to bees. The dangers of pesticides like DDT are well recognized today. Someday that will be the case for imidacloprid and other pesticides. Beekeepers and people who care about bees and our food supply need to communicate this point to consumers and regulatory agencies. With more information about alternatives, it will become easier to move away from using pesticides. The bottom line is that we can protect both our bees and our trees.

Last fall my neighbor and I stood in front of an empty hive, but this spring we have repopulated our hive and are interested in adding another hive. Beekeepers, perhaps like bees, are a tenacious lot. We can’t imagine a world without bees, and we hope you’ll join us in spreading that message.



What You Can Do

• Remove and safely dispose of all pesticides and herbicides in your home and garden.

• Buy organic treatment alternatives and read instructions and precautions carefully. For instance, even organic insecticidal soap should be applied late in the day so that it is dry by the time the bees go out to forage the next day.

• Use natural enemies, such as lady beetles, lacewings and parasitic wasps, to treat psyllids and other pests.

• If you hire a gardener, be sure to talk to him or her about not using chemicals in your garden. You can find a list of gardeners throughout Santa Barbara County who have gone through the Green Gardener Program. Go to for more information.

• Buy pesticide-free and organic food and organically grown plants for your garden.

• Do not buy citrus plants or fruit from residential sources or swap meets (a common way for diseases and pests to spread).

Citrus Tree Owners

• Do not move backyard citrus plants, plant material or fruit.

• Plant only certified disease-free citrus trees from commercial sources.

• Keep your trees healthy by using organic soil amendments.

• If you are in an area that is designated for chemical treatment, opt out. Use alternative organic treatments instead. Visit for more information.

• If you are concerned that your citrus trees might be affected, download the USDA Save Our Citrus app. This free iPhone app makes it easy to report and identify the leading citrus diseases: citrus greening, citrus canker, citrus black spot and sweet orange scab. Report your symptoms, upload a photo and receive a response back from citrus experts.

What Farmers and Ranchers Can Do

Practice Integrated Pest Management and organic farming. There are grants available to provide funding for farmers making the transition to organic. For more information, search online for “2013 EQIP Organic Initiative” or email

Support Local Beekeeping

• Buy local honey and support local beekeepers. If you see a bee swarm or have an unwelcome hive on your property, call the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association Beeline at 805 699-6229.

• If you have an interest in beekeeping, join the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Google Group and the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association at You can also take introductory beekeeping classes at Fairview Gardens and La Casa de Maria; check and for the schedules.



Krista Harris is the editor and co-publisher of Edible Santa Barbara. In addition to her interest in amateur beekeeping, she started the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Google Group, is on the board of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens and is a member of the Partnership Council for the Community Environmental Council.

Categories Summer 2013