After nearly two years of negotiations, threats of lawsuits and expensive efforts to net trees to keep bees from blossoms, the Department of Food and Agriculture said growers would be able to voluntarily register to receive a list of nearby hive owners and offer beekeepers another location. But nothing forces beekeepers to move.
The news stung seedless tangerine growers.
"It's bitterly disappointing," said Joel Nelson, president of the trade group California Citrus Mutual.
Tangerines and other normally seedless mandarins are self-pollinating. But if bees cross-pollinate the crop with the nectar of a seeded orange, lemon or grapefruit, mandarins develop undesirable seeds.
Growers had been hoping for a way to force beekeepers to move hives to keep the pollinators from dining on the blossoms of the mandarins they want to remain seedless.
Beekeepers, arguing to protect their prized orange blossom honey, say they are protected by the same right to farm laws that were designed to insulate established agricultural operations from the complaints of encroaching suburbanites.
"In many cases, we've been in the same location for 20 or 30 years and the landowner wants us there," said Gene Brandi, a Los Banos beekeeper and legislative liaison for the California State Beekeepers Association. "This sounds pretty good."
The CDFA proposal mailed Wednesday would allow growers to register their groves to receive a list detailing the locations and owners of hives within two miles.
"We're trying to get them to meet and confer so that both can coexist," said Rayne Pegg, CDFA's deputy secretary of legislation and policy. "We're hoping people will be good neighbors."
If the two sides can't agree, the county agricultural commissioner can intervene. Even then, the commissioner can only suggest the two sides try to work out the dispute.
"If that's the extent of it, the department has assumed our industry is an entitlement for another commodity," Nelson said.
The new regulations would affect Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Madera counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where many orange growers converted to easy-to-peel tangerines. The fruit's California acreage was expanded from 24,000 in 2005 to 31,392 in 2008 to compete with imports from Spain and the Middle East.
The regulations are in response to AB771, a bill that called for honeybees and seedless mandarins to coexist in the state. Pegg said the bill did not specifically give the department authority to arbitrate disputes, an edict that must originate in legislation.
"If they don't have enforcement, I doubt it's really going to be beneficial," said Jerry Prieto, the former Fresno County agricultural commissioner who worked for six months to help the two sides find common ground.
Both sides have until April 13 to comment on the new regulations or request a public hearing. That's roughly about the time the last orange blossoms drop.