Carrie Kappel had just returned from a weeklong trip last October when she noticed something was amiss in her Montecito backyard.
Piles of dead and dying honeybees littered the inside and outside of the thriving beehive she and her two young children had been watching over since April.
Still an amateur beekeeper, Kappel called friends at the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association to figure out why large numbers of her 30,000 to 50,000 honeybees were twitching, unable to fly and dying.
Within three weeks, they were all dead.
Sixteen formerly healthy hives within a 1.5-mile radius — about 750,000 bees total — were lost in the same time period.
Local beekeepers recently learned that a combination of pesticide chemicals highly toxic to bees most likely were the cause of the Montecito die-off, according to results from samples tested in an Agriculture Department lab.
The news wasn’t entirely surprising to those in the beekeeping community, most of whom know that few sources could annihilate the source of their hobby so quickly.
“We did our best to try to save them, but they went so fast,” said Kappel, a marine ecologist at UC Santa Barbara. “It was heartbreaking. I felt really connected with them.”
While beekeepers are still upset, SBBA leaders are hopeful that spreading the word will help prevent a recurrence by making community members aware of the potential dangers of pesticides for honeybees and other pollinators.
He urged community members to talk to their gardeners, pest control company or anyone else who should be using products properly. Many detected chemicals are explicitly labeled as toxic to bees or for nonresidential use, Bebb added.
“One of these colonies or a couple of them must’ve been exposed to any number of these pesticides,” he said. “This is the first time that we’ve had this type of die-off. It was sad. That’s a lot of hives in a small area.”
Bebb estimated there are 200 to 400 backyard beekeepers in the Santa Barbara area who are properly registered with the Santa Barbara County Agriculture Commissioner’s Office.
With an official cause determined, Kappel this week received her second starter swarm of about 3,000 bees, which has already grown to about 5,000 in the yellow box she uses as a hive in the corner of her property.
She fearlessly stood beside the beehive and then donned protective head garb and gloves to check on the “sweet bees,” which hopefully will outgrow her last hive with time.
“My new little baby beehive,” said Kappel, noting that she’s never used pesticides or chemicals. “I’ve just always loved bees ... and honey. As a biologist, I’ve been fascinated.”
She’s looking forward to harvesting honey this fall, and so are her children, Charlie, 5, and Lily, 2.
“Unfortunately, none of the kids got any honey this year,” Kappel said.