BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - In what his attorney calls the first case of its kind, a beekeeper claims in court that a crop duster killed 1 million honeybees by spraying pesticides without warning on cotton fields the bees were pollinating.
Bronco Bee Company sued Wheeler Ridge Aviation, its owner Gerald Smith, and the crop duster, Darvin Boles, in Kern County Court.
Bronco's attorney Ronald Cooper said in an interview that the massive bee deaths were avoidable.
"Sprayers are supposed to call the county to see if there are any beehives pinned [registered] near the area they want to spray, and give the beekeepers 48 hours to relocate the hives," Cooper told Courthouse News.
"Since there are about 50 to 60,000 bees per hive, my client lost around 1 million bees because the sprayer didn't call ahead of time."
As a result, Cooper said, Bronco Bee did not have enough bees to make honey or fulfill its contracts with almond and cherry growers.
"Some hives were lost completely, and though you can reproduce if the queen is there, it's hard for the hives to regain strength without the worker bees because they do everything," Cooper said.
He said the loss of honey production is compounded by the impact on pollination.
"Something like 60 percent of all the vegetables we grow require pollination, so to have that process interrupted is very significant," he said.
Cooper said that the low cost of fines for spraying pesticides without warning beekeepers fails to reflect the importance of bees to agriculture.
"My client pursued Wheeler Ridge on the second incident because the first one happened more than 30 days after he filed his complaint, and the county only fined them $250," Cooper said.
"The statute provides no incentive for sprayers to call and notify beekeepers, and most beekeepers can't afford to go after them in court."
Cooper said this may be the first time a beekeeper fought back against unannounced spraying.
Bronco Bee kept 374 beehives at two sites in Bakersfield. Both were close to privately owned cotton fields, whose owners let Bronco Bees forage in the fields to pollinate them.
Both apiaries were "pinned," or registered, with the Kern County Department of Agriculture, Bronco said in its complaint. It had filed Requests for Pesticide Notification for both sites.
"Bees are considered to be inactive from one hour after sunset to two hours before sunrise or when the temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit," the complaint states, citing the California Code of Regulations. The code requires pesticide sprayers to notify any beekeepers within a mile of the area being sprayed.
Bronco claims Darvin sprayed a field near one set of beehives with Lorsban around 9 a.m. without telling it in advance.
"The pesticide used, Lorsban, is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment," the complaint states.
"As a direct and proximate result of defendants' negligence as herein alleged, all of plaintiff's bees that were foraging in the blooming field of cotton at the time of the application of the noxious and poisonous pesticide Lorsban were killed. ... Plaintiff lost the ability to split the 192 beehives from which the dead honeybees came and it lost approximately 44 days of honey production."
Bronco says an almost identical incident took place about 10 days later, when Darvin sprayed the cotton field near Bronco Bee's second set of beehives with Assail 70WP around 8:30 a.m. Again, Bronco says, Darvin did not inform it about the spraying ahead of time. Since Assail is as toxic to bees as Lorsban, all of Bronco Bee's honeybees in the second cotton fields died and the company lost another 34 days of honey production.
Bronco estimates it lost 60 to 80 percent of its honeybees in the two crop dustings.
Bees have been suffering for 5 years from colony collapse disorder, Cooper said in the interview. The sudden, rapid loss of honeybees began in the United States in 2006. Studies have suggested a welter of possibilities for the massive die-offs, including pesticides on crops where bees forage.
About one-third of U.S. food crops are pollinated by bees, so colony collapse disorder could do enormous damage to agriculture.
If his client prevails, Cooper said, he hopes the case will encourage the Legislature to increase fines for improper crop dusting.
"More than anything, I hope that this case raises awareness about how important bees are," said Cooper.
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