An old-school way of mapping beehives and pesticide applications is giving way to technology this season in California in an effort to better keep the two apart.

This year the tracking, which has long consisted of giant maps or corkboards taped to walls with tiny pins marking hive locations, goes digital with BeeWhere, a program powered by a geographic information system.

Where beekeepers once had to visit county agriculture departments, they can now register and document hive locations online.

And when harmful pesticides will be used, applicators will get a computer-generated list of hives within one mile so they can provide proper notification.

“The whole effort is to help the bees, protect the bees, get them on the map,” said Rueben Arroyo, the agricultural commissioner and sealer in Riverside County, Calif.

Said Bob Curtis, a consultant for the Almond Board of California who served as the board’s director of agricultural affairs until his retirement last year: “We’ve taken a long-overdue quantum leap into a new age.”

Outreach, Then Enforcement

Hives based in California and those trucked in by bee brokers or keepers from elsewhere will have to register, said Arroyo.

With the up-to-date information, beekeepers can move or cover hives before treatments so bees aren’t harmed. Pesticide applicators could also switch to non-toxic treatments.

“It’s better for everyone if we know whose hives are whose,” said Jackie Park-Burris, a queen breeder in Northern California.

If 2019 is thought of an outreach year, consider 2020 the year of enforcement, thanks to an assembly bill passed last year. That’s when new regulations take place that could lead to fines of up to $1,000 per violation for not registering hive locations, Arroyo said.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation couldn’t say how many beekeepers have already registered with BeeWhere. Next year organizers hope to launch a mobile phone application to make compliance easier.

Beekeepers hoped the app would be available this year to ease registration and location-marking. “It’s better than where it was but it’s not where we want it to be now,” Park-Burris said.

1.5 Million Colonies

The Golden State is home to an estimated 500,000 commercial colonies of honeybees, and at least a million more are imported from across the country and moved around California each growing season to pollinate almonds, cherry, citrus, and other crops.

But some pesticides used on those same crops can be toxic to bees, so California officials have required beekeepers to register with local agriculture officials so that pesticide applicators can give notice prior to treatment to give beekeepers time to protect the hives. New this year is a requirement to register bee locations within 72 hours, down from five days.

Not all beekeepers historically have complied because registration and enforcement can be inconsistent between counties. Out-of-state beekeepers can also see it as burden given the complex process of trucking in live bees, keeping them healthy, and getting them to their correct location.

Big Business

Almonds are big business in California. The $21.5 billion industry employs more than 100,000 people, according to a 2014 economic impact report.

The state has 1 million acres of almond crops, which need about two hives per acre to pollinate, Curtis said. It’s vital those bees are not exposed to toxic chemicals.

“Without bees we wouldn’t be able to set the crops and produce the amount of almonds that he do,” he said.

Only state and county officials will be able to see all hive locations, so as to comply with privacy laws and ensure security. Hives can range in value between $100 and $400, Arroyo said. “Every year beehives are stolen,” he said. “I don’t see it. I hear about it from our beekeepers.”

Pesticide applicators support the program because it gives them more knowledge and a better sense of areas to avoid or the chance to select different treatment, said Ruthann Anderson, president and CEO of the California Association of Pest Control Advisers.

Bee Census

Bee kills aren’t good for public relations, and not all hives are evident by driving around, she added. Once a prescription for pesticide treatment is filed, applicators will get the names and contact details for beekeepers with hives within a mile so they can give 48-hour notice.

“They’re coming in to provide pollination services,” Anderson said. “We want to make sure they come in safely and we want to make sure they leave safely.”

The program, which launched a few weeks ago and has about a $200,000 budget, will also help with another question: No one is quite sure just how many bees visit California in a given season. That should change. “This will give a better estimate,” Arroyo said.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture didn’t respond to a request for comment.