WEST PALM BEACH — One of Florida’s largest citrus growers has been fined after a state investigation found it illegally sprayed pesticide that caused the death of millions of honeybees.
For the last seven years, the nation’s beekeepers have been plagued by a malady known as colony collapse disorder, in which bees disappear from their hives. Pesticides have been blamed as one of the causes.
The $1,500 state fine levied two weeks ago is believed to be the first time a Florida citrus grower was cited in connection with a bee kill.
Ben Hill Griffin Inc., headquartered in Frostproof, is so entwined with Florida culture that the University of Florida’s football stadium is named for its founder. The citrus operation is run by the family’s fourth generation.
Since at least 2006, beekeepers have argued that citrus growers have at times illegally sprayed pesticides to kill the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that spreads a greening, a lethal and widespread citrus disease that is devastating groves. Bees have been killed along with psyllids.
A records check for the last 3 1⁄2 years indicates the state has not taken any previous action against citrus growers because it found no other documented pesticide misuse in reported bee kills, said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Department.
“The action against Ben Hill Griffin is the first case in that time period where a pesticide application by a grower was determined to be the cause of a bee kill,” Gillespie said.
Kelly Friend, chief of the department’s Bureau of Compliance Monitoring, said that when it comes to pesticides, what is stated on the label is the law. The maximum fine allowed by state law is $10,000 per occurrence, Friend said.
The fine can be less based on factors such as whether the violation was willful and the extent of harm caused, according to Florida Statute 487.
The state said in a complaint letter sent Aug. 21 to Steve Farr, vice president of Ben Hill Griffin’s Grove division, that pesticide laws were violated on Feb. 21-22 and March 8 and 19.
Farr did not return calls or respond to an email. The company has 21 days to request an administrative appeal.
The investigation began March 19 after Crystal River-based beekeeper Randall Foti reported that millions of his bees as well as those owned by beekeeper Barry Hart of Fargo, Ga., were dead due to at least a dozen aerial pesticide sprayings in the groves. Foti reported that he saw empty containers of the Montana 2F insecticide in a burn pile in the grove.
Last week, Foti, a beekeeper for 42 years, said that due to the bee kills, his bee colonies produced only 200 drums of orange honey this past season, instead of the usual 400 drums, resulting in $240,000 in honey losses alone.
“Every four days, they were spraying seven or eight different types of chemicals. A $1,500 fine is not much of a deterrent,” Foti said.
Yet another meeting among beekeepers, citrus growers and regulators is planned for September to figure out how to improve communication.
In the first incident a pesticide handler employed by the citrus grower sprayed Delegate WG Insecticide before 7 a.m. when bees are foraging, a violation of the label restriction, the complaint alleges.
The second violation stems from applications of the Montana 2F insecticide to the roots of a total of 50 acres of young citrus trees to control psyllids. During those treatments, bees were exposed to direct application of Imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Montana 2F. Imidacloprid is a systemic pesticide that spreads throughout the tree.
Samples of dead bees, honey and honeycomb taken from one of the hives tested positive for Imidacloprid, the complaint says.
Hart said millions of his bees died in the grove because of the pesticides. He estimates his losses at about $150,000. Some of his bees were still alive but began to decline once he returned to Georgia.
“I have to go back down there and make a living. Forty percent of my income is from orange honey, gallberry and Brazilian pepper honey,” said Hart who has been a beekeeper for 28 years.
While Hart asserts that “$1,500 ain’t nothing to the grove people,” he thinks the state’s action sends a message that regulators are watching.
“This could have been the best thing to happen,” Hart said. “They have to make a living with citrus. I have to make a living with my honey. It boils down to the label is the law.”