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BEEWARE : The sweet life is becoming a memory as beekeepers get stung by predatory insects and recurring drought.


It wasn't very long ago that Ventura County was known as a paradise for bees and beekeepers.

Honey was plentiful, like the water that ran in county rivers. Purple sage and black sage--favorite pollen sources for honeybees--covered hillsides from the Pacific to the county's inland borders.

But no longer. A combination of natural and man-made factors is making life increasingly difficult for the county's commercial beekeepers and for those who keep bees as a hobby. Predatory mites, the ongoing drought and the northward migration of the feared (and misunderstood) Africanized bee are among the elements that have come together during the last few years to threaten the once-thriving industry.

And if all this weren't enough, the recent record-breaking cold snap that damaged citrus crops and killed pollen-rich flowers may have dealt a devastating blow to bee populations. The full extent of the damage won't be known for some weeks, but local beekeepers are bracing for the worst.

The current crises would be unfortunate if their sole effect were to imperil a small industry with deep roots and a rich tradition in Ventura County, but the problem is much more serious than that. It goes to the very heart of the county's agricultural economy, a large part of which depends on a plentiful supply of honeybees for crop pollination.

Although there are no definitive figures available on the number of beekeepers in Ventura County, local agricultural officials estimate that there are between 10 and 15 commercial keepers. These are people who make their livings exclusively from bees--they sell honey and wax and provide farmers with bees to pollinate their crops.

But in Ventura County, as in the state and the nation as a whole, part-time and hobby beekeepers are more common than commercial keepers. If the state mirrors national trends, there are between 1,200 and 2,000 part-timers and hobbyists in the county. They too are having hard times. But it is the commercial beekeeper who is suffering the most.

"When I got into this business 12 years ago, it was the kind of situation where you couldn't do anything wrong," said Red Bennett, who raises bees and packages his own honey in Piru Canyon. "Now it's a situation where it's nearly impossible to do anything right."

Don Schram has been a full-time commercial beekeeper--first in Oxnard, then near Fillmore--since 1978, when he left a factory job in Camarillo. Schram has 144 hives at a Saticoy avocado farm. About 90% of all crop pollination in this country is done by honeybees, and Schram's bees are being kept at the avocado farm in the event of an off-season avocado bloom--and also to feed on the nearby blue-gum eucalyptus. There's little else for them to eat, now that the drought has left the nearby hills brown and sage-less.

"Most people who go into this business have some sort of childhood connection to it," Schram said. "I had a granddaddy who kept bees back in Alberta, Canada, where I grew up. I loved working with them, and I loved the smell of the wax and the honey." Today, he said, people are so far away from the reality of farm life that many don't even know where honey comes from. "The connection is lost," he said.

Schram's own connection remains strong, however, despite increasing pressures on the industry. On his business card, below his name, are the words Honey Bees--Angels of Agriculture. Unfortunately, his little angels are in serious trouble. "Yeah," he said, "it's all hit the fan at once."

Actually, the trouble has been brewing for a long time. One of the problems now facing California beekeepers had its roots in England in the 1920s, when large numbers of bees began dying mysteriously on the Isle of Wight, just off England's south coast. When a canny entomologist decided to dissect some dead bees, he found the culprit: a microscopic mite that makes its home in the bee's windpipe. The critter was dubbed Acarapis woodi , and became more commonly known as the tracheal mite.

Quickly responding to the problem, the U.S. government passed a law in 1922 prohibiting the importation of bees into the country. It was effective for more than six decades. Then, in 1984, tracheal mites began to show up in Florida, and in 1987 they made it to California.

"There have always been reports that somebody's uncle or cousin from somewhere has been sending bees in," said Eric Mussen, extension agriculturist at UC Davis. Mussen says that so many beekeepers migrate to find irrigated fields--both to feed their bees and to collect pollination fees--that the proliferation of predators cannot be stopped.

Whatever route the tracheal mite took to Ventura County, it nearly ruined local beekeepers. Some lost as many as half their hives in 1987, and lots of hobbyists decided to give it up. "It turned out that the tracheal mite was significantly more devastating to our bees than a lot of people had thought," Mussen said.

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