Keeper lost $15K worth of bees after crop dustings

Wearing a veil to protect her face, hobbyist beekeeper Melissa Jefferson brushes away the worker bees as she takes a frame of honeycomb out of one of her hives at her home on N 1/2 Road near Loma.



There is buzz of a range war dusting up between beekeepers and alfalfa growers in the lower valley.

On Sunday, after a crop duster sprayed alfalfa fields for alfalfa weevil in the Fruita and Loma areas, thousands of dollars worth of bees died.

“I am so demoralized,” said Chad Ragland, owner of the Great Harvest Bread Co. and seven apiaries. “I am so scared to tell my wife that I lost $15,000 worth of bees in three days. … They got hit pretty hard because of the spraying schedule.”

Ragland said he started keeping honey bees three years ago to cultivate honey for his bread.

Both he and hobbyist beekeeper Melissa Jefferson say their bees were affected by the spraying.

The spray was done by Olathe Spray Service Inc.

“I’m terribly sorry the fella lost his bees,” said Leonard Felix, pilot and co-owner of the company. “We sure don’t want to do that. We work all the time to try and mitigate those issues.”

Since then, other beekeeper have called for a ban on aerial spraying of pesticides in the Grand Valley. The situation has been enough for Felix to throw his hands up and say he’s done with spraying in Mesa County.

“I don’t need to work down there. I was just doing it because those guys were in a pinch,” Felix said. “I was making a living before Grand Junction, and I can do it without again.”

Aerial spraying of crops is a dying business in the Grand Valley, said Bob Hammon,  area extension agent for the Colorado State University Tri-River Area Extension.

A few years back, the local outfit that did aerial spraying was grounded because there just wasn’t enough consistent work, he said.

“One of the reasons we can’t grow commercial sweet corn here any more is the lack of an aerial applicator,” Hammon said.

But the service still is needed, and without it farmers would lose their crops and their livelihood.

“The growers just needed someone to help them out, and we agreed to come down there and help them,” Felix said.

When he flies in the Grand Valley, Felix lines up large swaths of acreage to be sprayed in one day. Farmers join forces to hire Olathe Spray to make the service affordable. What is sometimes lacking is accurate and timely information as to the location of beehives.

Jefferson, who owns several hives in east Loma and has been keeping bees for eight years, said the spraying killed many of her honeybees. The plane flew over midday when worker bees were out gathering pollen and nectar, she said.

“From the grower’s perspective, those bees are almost trespassing on their land,” Hammon said.

Beekeepers often ask landowners if they can place hives on their property. Sometimes, beekeepers do not ask for permission.

“If these honeybee guys would let us know where their hives are, then we would know to be careful. But when they go and sneak them in ... If you don’t know they are there, how can you be safe with them?” said Troy Waters, who raises alfalfa on more than 1,000 acres in the Lower Valley.

His crops depend on bees for pollination. Instead of honeybees though, Waters, whose great-grandfather owned Mike the Headless Chicken, keeps thousands of leaf-cutter bees on his property. For the bees to do their job, he uses 50,000 of them per acre.

“So if anybody’s livelihood depends on bees for pollination, it’s me,” he said.

The dustup between the beekeepers and alfalfa growers has been overblown, he said, and he is upset that a couple of beekeepers might chase the last aerial spraying service out of town.

“There is no reason everybody can’t get along. There really ain’t,” Waters said. “It is just sad to see somebody that is new in the (beekeeping) business to come out here and blame people who have been doing this all their lives.”

Ragland said he has been beekeeping for the past three years. But he knows enough to ask permission before setting bees on someone else’s property and says he is dependent upon the good graces of those landowners.

Kenneth Palmer is the part-time farmer and full-time accountant who allowed Ragland to place his hives on his property a few days before the aerial spraying.

“It is probably my fault because I didn’t call Chad (Ragland). I just made some assumptions that the bees were far enough away, and the alfalfa was not in bloom,” Palmer said. “It comes down to a basic matter of communication. … We all need to work together.”

The beekeepers ask that no spraying is done between 9 a.m. and late afternoon. But that is impractical.

Felix said if he only sprayed in the mornings, it would take more than a year to hit all the crops in the valley.

He suggested improved communications through Hammon’s office at the CSU extension.

Once beekeepers are aware of a spraying, they can plug the hives or move them to a safe area.

“It is in no one’s interest to kill bees,” Hammon said. “We don’t want this to happen again.”


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