Pollinators are a vital part of agricultural production, especially for the California almond industry. In the United States, more than one-third of all crop production – 90 crops ranging from nuts to berries to flowering vegetables – requires insect pollination. Managed honey bee colonies are our primary pollinators, adding at least $15 billion a year by increasing yields and helping to ensure superior-quality harvests.

Working with the Almond Board of California we have encouraged our membership to plant bee-friendly forage and have also advocated for more research to improve the nutritional health of bees. Additionally, we continue to promote the Almond Board of California Honey Bee Best Management Practices (BMPs) for California’s almond industry.

On the advocacy side, the Almond Alliance is committed to addressing challenges that impact pollinators while working with the industry. Part of this advocacy is addressing misconceptions about pollinators and their relationship to the California almond industry.

Please see below for current issues related to pollinators and the California almond industry.

Move to Place Bumble Bees Under the California Endangered Species Act

A recent vote by the California Fish and Game Commission to accept a petition to list four subspecies of bumble bees under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) is of concern to the Almond Alliance of California. If listed under the California Endangered Species Act, the bees would be the first pollinators and insects added. Pesticide restrictions, grazing rules, and other habitat protections could then be imposed. While the bees are “candidates” for listing, they have the same protections as species listed as threatened or endangered, which means prohibitions on killing them that the Department of Fish and Wildlife routinely interprets to extent to harm to the bees or their habitat. That could lead to uncertainty if bumble bees are present on fields or in other areas where work is happening. This type of ambiguity would be disruptive to the almond industry.

It is common knowledge that the California almond industry relies on bees, values them, and invests great resources to protect their health. Bumble bees are not honey producers and live in nests versus hives, but they are both pollinators. And listing bumble bees as threatened or endangered is setting the stage for how pollinators will be defined, regulated, and protected, including the potential for regulators to take action to regulate honey bees and even reduce their numbers in order to protect bumble bees.

On June 12, 2019, the California Fish & Game Commission voted to accept a petition to list four species of bumblebees for protection under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). This decision was made after the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety and Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition to list the Crotch bumblebee, Franklin’s bumblebee, Suckley cuckoo bumblebee, and western bumblebee as endangered species under CESA. This action begins a one-year status review of the species. Following that review the Commission will make a final decision at a future meeting.

The Almond Alliance in conjunction with other organizations is arguing that this consideration is not justified based on the following facts:

• Presently, no insects are listed as threatened or endangered under CESA.
• Both the California Office of Administrative Law and the California Office of the Attorney General have previously taken the position that insects cannot be listed under CESA.
• CESA defines candidate, threatened, and endangered species as “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.” The list does not include insects.

But legal counsel for the California Fish and Game Commission indicated that because the California Fish and Game Code defines fish as “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals,” when the Legislature enacted CESA rather than include insects among the families of species that could be listed, it intended to incorporate bees, butterflies, beetles, and other insects via the definition of fish. This same argument was presented to the Office of Administrative Law in 1980 and rejected at that time.

Petitioner the Xerces Society is an international nonprofit organization that pursues conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. They have stated that “although farmers can help with the recovery of these bees, listing under CESA is not likely to add an additional burden to their daily work.” That said, the petition includes a number of proposed restrictions on farming that would harm significant portions of the industry.

So, the debate on definitions has begun. Let me be clear, this should not be a debate about the value of bees to almonds, society, and the world, rather how we handle an insect that needs to be protected to prevent colony loss and provide the best possible long-term health.

The Almond Alliance and partnering organizations argue that the petition is unprecedented in that:

• “the petition asks the Commission to list four insect species despite the fact that no bees or other insects are listed as present, given that insects cannot be listed under CESA as a matter of law;”
• “the petition attempts to justify listing by using random occurrence data on three of the four bumble bee species;”
• “the petition seeks to list all four species largely based on generalized concerns about global threats to bumble bee species generically, rather than specific data regarding environmental threats, which would be necessary to justify a ‘may be warranted’ finding.”

Since the Commission voted to make these four bumble bees “candidate species,” they could become the first pollinators, and the first insects, to be added to the state endangered species list. If the Commission lists one or more insects, then more petitions to list will follow. And because the Commission – unlike the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – votes overwhelmingly to list species when there is a petition to list, it is foreseeable that many insects could be listed in short order.

Insect listings can be targeted to disrupt activities that are important to society, such as farming, wildfire management, renewable energy development, and public health initiatives. Listings can create unintended consequences, for example, encouraging habitat destruction and discouraging habitat creation/restoration. Thus, listings may harm regulated entities and run counter to sound public policy.

Currently, we are seeking support for a legal challenge to the June 2019 decision of the California Fish and Game Commission to make four subspecies of bumble bees candidates for listing under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). There is a 90-day statute of limitations to file a challenge, so our deadline to do so is mid-September 2019.

The California almond industry is dependent on pollinators, especially honey bees. In a recent meeting with the Newsom Administration, the Almond Alliance in partnership with other agricultural stakeholders provided a briefing about the investment the industry has made in protecting and advancing bee health and the development of best management practices.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will continue to make pollinators a priority. This issue is one we will continue to revisit and therefore the importance of education, advocacy, and engagement is critical. The Almond Alliance will continue to keep you updated on this issue.