CITYWIDE — Whenever Daniel Salisbury comes across a bee hive while walking around Santa Monica, he doesn’t run for cover or call the authorities. Instead, the antique dealer and amateur bee keeper goes out of his way to collect them and relocate them to his property in Morro Bay.
It’s not to make money from their honey. Salisbury, who said his roughly 20 hives produce about 100 pounds of sweet honey each year that he gives away to friends and family, is concerned about the shortage of bees needed to pollinate valuable crops such as almonds and oranges.
Salisbury and some entomologists believe bees are under attack from a variety of sources and if something is not done, bees could become extinct, posing a serious threat to the food supply. Roughly one-third of the food people consume is pollinated by insects, including honey bees, experts said.
“Domesticated bees are disappearing,” Salisbury said. “There is such a danger right now that they are not going to be around. Einstein said that [four] years after the bees go, mankind goes.
“This is serious.”
To combat the problem, Salisbury would like City Hall to create a pilot program in which he and other bee keepers can be notified when a hive is found, contain the bees and relocate them to a relatively-isolated area in Santa Monica, such as property around the Santa Monica Airport. Excess swarms could be relocated elsewhere, “re-queened,” and rented out to farmers looking to pollinate their crops.
Salisbury said his next step is to make a presentation to the City Council. He has offered to volunteer his time in relocating the swarms.
Currently, when a resident calls about a bee hive, exterminators with the Los Angeles County West Vector Control District vacuum the bees and freeze them for testing, killing the swarm. Pesticides are not used in the process and bees are only removed if the property owner feels they are a threat. Some are allergic to the venom released by a bee sting. In extremely rare cases, some have died from exposure.
Getting City Hall to go along with his plan could prove to be quite difficult for Salisbury.
Robert Saviskas, the executive director of the Los Angeles County West Vector Control District in Culver City wrote in an e-mail to Councilman Kevin McKeown and Santa Monica’s vector representative Nancy Greenstein that he wouldn’t recommend relocation because it would disturb the natural balance that exists.
“A lot of things could go wrong,” Saviskas wrote. “I think the adage, ‘If it works, don’t fix it’ applies here.”
McKeown said the issue should be looked at and he has forwarded Salisbury’s information to city staff.
“Killing potentially useful bees still doesn’t make sense, but I acknowledge that bee stings are a serious health threat to some people, so if we moved forward on any pilot project I’d want to make sure we knew we could control and contain swarms safely in densely populated urban environments,” said McKeown, who admits to trapping bugs and spiders in his home and releasing them outdoors instead of killing them.
“Strategies that might work in the countryside to shift swarms into hives might present risks here in the city,” McKeown said.
Entomologists believe bee colonies are being threatened by a number of factors, including pathogens, mites, pesticides, and a lack of nutrients caused by swarms feeding on a single crop. Others believe cell phone towers could be to blame while some think it is cosmic karma.
While there is some disagreement over the severity of colony collapse, with some entomologists claiming the issues is overblown, the number of managed colonies has declined since the 1940s when there were five million in the U.S., said Walter Sheppard, a professor of entomology at Washington State University who is overseeing a breeding program for honey bees.
When mites arrived in the 1980s, the number dropped to three million. As more families moved away from rural areas, the number of farmers maintaining their own hives dropped. By 2000 the number of managed colonies was down to 2.3 million, Sheppard said.
“I don’t believe many bee keepers doing research on hives believe honey bees will go extinct, but the cost of pollination will go up if things continue as they are,” Sheppard said. “We have seen people trucking in bees from Florida, Georgia, and Washington state into California to pollinate because there was a shortage. That stresses the bees, which are being jostled around for a week, and that is believed to be adding to the decline.”
There are two types of bees found in the U.S.: European and Africanized. Africanized bees are more prevalent in warmer climates, such as the Southwest.
Africanized bees have shown to be more resilient against mites destroying hives. By cross-breading with European bees, colonies can have better rates of survival, which is why Salisbury is in favor of relocating Africanized bees found locally.
Saviskas said Africanized bees, which first appeared on the scene in 1998, have been interbreeding with European bees so successfully that over 80 percent of all bees tested in the county are now Africanized bees.
“Where there are larger populations of Africanized honeybees (Southern California and the Southwest border states), there is virtually no colony collapse disorder,” Saviskas said. “It is believed that this interbreeding between Africanized honeybees and European honeybees is one of the reasons.”
Vector Control no longer relocates bees to other areas to prevent the inadvertent spread of mites that might trigger or accelerate colony collapse, Saviskas said.
Relocating hives may not be necessary, given that Saviskas has seen a 22 percent increase in beehive and swarm activity in 2008 over numbers recorded in 2007. In the first four months of 2009, there has been an additional 28 percent increase in activity compared to the same period in 2008, evidence that bees could be rebounding.
P. Kirk Visscher, a professor of entomology at UC Riverside, said that the extent of colony collapse may have been exaggerated. He has seen an increase in the number of managed colonies so far this year, but doesn’t believe bees are out of the woods just yet.
As far as Salisbury’s plan, Visscher isn’t sure it is practical.
“It requires expertise in dealing with bees,” he said. “To do it is time consuming and it increases the time and the extent to which colonies pose some threat.
“It’s a laudable goal and I’m sympathetic to the idea, but I don’t think it would be worth it in the end.”
Salisbury admits that he may be biting off more than he can chew.
“The only thing that scares me is whether or not I am taking on more than I can handle,” he said.