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Citrus Greening Poses Threat To Florida Beekeepers

Hamlin Tree.
Hamlin Tree.
Hamlin Tree.
Credit Ashley Lopez / WGCU
Hamlin Tree.

In the past decade, Florida’s citrus industry has taken a biological beating.

Years ago it was citrus canker ravaging groves. The latest natural blight is bacteria called “citrus greening”—and it’s already cost growers millions.

There’s still no real cure for greening, but growers have been inundating their groves with pesticides, which is providing some relief.

However, these pesticides are causing trouble for beekeepers who are also trying to weather some tough environmental stresses.

An orange grove near Fort Myers.
Credit Ashley Lopez / WGCU
An orange grove near Fort Myers.

Harold Curtis has been growing juice oranges in his grove near Fort Myers for almost two decades.  He said he was first a beekeeper. Producing honey has been in his family for generations, but several bad years led Curtis to leave beekeeping for orange groves. Now, “citrus greening” has hit that business hard.

“I mean, you can see, a lot of this fruit right here on the ground, that’s greening,” Curtis said as he kicks around shrunken oranges on the ground.

Like most growers, Curtis said the only way to save his crop is by spraying pesticides and killing off insects called psyllids, which spread the bacteria that causes greening.

“Before you had all these greening problems and canker problems, you were probably spraying maybe three times a year, where now some of these people are spraying 10 times a year,” he said.

This isn’t a long term solution for citrus greening, but it’s keeping this multi-million dollar problem at bay.

Monji Sekri, a citrus expert with the University of Florida’s extension services, said genetically modified plants resistant to the greening are in the works.

“Genetic engineering will take time and we are thinking maybe 10 years from now,” he said. “So, we have to look really to short term management options for citrus greening.”

Orange Blossom honey jars at the Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. in Labelle, Florida.
Credit Ashley Lopez / WGCU
Orange Blossom honey jars at the Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. in Labelle, Florida.

But this short term solution poses a lot of problems for beekeepers, who have always had a symbiotic relationship with citrus growers. Beekeepers from all over the country keep their bees in orange groves during the winter and a small percentage of growers rely on bees to pollinate hybrid fruits like tangerines.  Some beekeepers also produce Orange Blossom honey in the groves.

This year, Florida levied $1,500 fine against one of the state’s big citrus growers after the company killed off millions of bees when it illegally sprayed too much pesticide in its groves.

Since then, the state has tried to make sure both industries coordinate better. Like citrus, pollination is big business and bees have already had some tough years.

Keith Councell is the president of Florida’s Beekeepers Association.He said massive bee kills shouldn’t be happening—but small scale accidents are likely while there’s still frequent spraying.

“We are losing bees faster than we can replace them,” he said. “So, if we have to move our bees away from the citrus groves so they can correct this problem, that’s what we are going to do.”

Steven Dwinell with Florida’s Agriculture Department said getting growers and beekeepers to talk to each other more often is a big priority.

“They need to be working together so that both their needs can be met and both industries can be successful,”  he said.

But part of the problem is that not all beekeepers always live close to orange groves year-round.

Rene Pratt, Curtis’ sister, runs the family’s honey store in Labelle, which is surrounded by orange groves.

A bee hive.
Credit Ashley Lopez / WGCU
A bee hive.

Pratt said she’s one of a few commercial beekeepers still in the area. Several years ago her beekeeping business took the hardest hit ever when vorroa miteshad all but wiped out her bees. Now she’s working to make sure greening doesn’t do the same.

“We have to work together,” she said. “We’ve been very fortunate with our growers. 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.”

Last month, Florida’s Agriculture Chief Adam Putnam sat down with leaders from both industries.

Putnam said his department is working to put some management tools in place that might help including a new computer application that growers and beekeepers could use to keep each other informed about spraying schedules and hive locations.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.