The Guardian published an eye-opening article about the impact of America’s growing love for everything almond and the devastating impact it is having on the country’s honeybee population. Our consumption of almond milk alone has increased 250% over the last five years and the California almond industry, already home to 80% of the world’s almond supply, is growing in response to this huge demand. The problem is that almond trees are completely dependent on the pollination services of honeybees. 1
According to the Guardian, “Commercial beekeepers who send their hives to the almond farms are seeing their bees die in record numbers, and nothing they do seems to stop the decline.” 1 This reflects a continually mounting death toll among the bees working in California. In 2014, “about 80,000 colonies—about 5 percent of bees brought in for pollination—experienced adult bee deaths or a dead and deformed brood. Some entire colonies died.” 2
Most of us think of beekeeping as a mom and pop operation with friendly beekeepers doting over hives to bring us all kind of yummy honey. Few of us realize that the modern beekeeping industry is more of a livestock business with beekeepers earning about half of their revenue from pollination services. 3 And those mom and pop operations? They likely only make up about 12% of the beekeeping industry. Large beekeepers (defined as having 2,000 or more colonies), managed an average of about 4,000 colonies (50% of all US bee colonies), while medium-sized beekeepers (defined as having 300 to 1,999 colonies) managed an average of about 750 colonies (about 38% of all US colonies). 3
According to one “bee economist,” there is a migratory pattern to how more than 20,000 beekeepers move their bees around the US providing pollination services:
“The beekeeping year begins in January waiting for almonds to bloom in California. Once almond bloom is over, the beekeeper moves colonies up through the Pacific Northwest pollinating apples and other spring-blooming crops. In May, the beekeeper takes the colonies to North Dakota to produce honey from clover, canola and sunflowers. As honey production slows in the fall, the beekeeper returns to California to await almond pollination in January, and the cycle begins all over again.”4
The number of bees traveling our highways each year is staggering. In 2017, approximately 1.7 million colonies were shipped to California to pollinate the state’s commercial almond groves. They were packed in tractor trailers carrying 400-500 colonies each. The pollination fee for each hive averaged $171.4
The sheer size of the California almond groves is staggering (Photo: Shutterstock)
A bee expert, Dr. Reed Johnson, and his team from The Ohio State University analyzed records from California’s Pesticide Information Portal to see if there was a link to the massive numbers of honeybee deaths. Johnson found that “combinations of insecticides and fungicides typically deemed individually ‘safe’ for honeybees turn into lethal cocktails when mixed….In the most extreme cases, combinations decreased the survival of larvae by more than 60 percent when compared to a control group of larvae unexposed to fungicides and insecticides.”2
In an observation few could argue with, Dr. Johnson said of their research findings, “It just doesn’t make any sense to use an insecticide when you have 80 percent of the nation’s honeybees sitting there exposed to it.” His team has made a series of recommendations—like not using insecticides during pollination—that may improve the chances for some of our nation’s most dedicated worker bees to have a fighting chance of surviving their work season.2 The team’s research paper was published in the journal Insects and you can read it at the link below. 5
Bee boxes sit in a huge commercial almond grove in northern California (Photo: Shutterstock)
An article from The Cut shares that aside from the pesticide issues, “almond pollination is especially demanding for bees, because they need to wake up from their annual period of winter dormancy one to two months earlier than usual to begin. Then, once they start, massive numbers of bees are concentrated in small geographic areas, making it easier for diseases to spread among them.”6
The Guardian article points out that commercial honeybees are classified as livestock by the USDA “because of the creature’s vital role in food production. But no other class of livestock comes close to the scorched-earth circumstances that commercial honeybees face. More bees die every year in the US than all other fish and animals raised for slaughter combined.” In a sad observation, the article quotes a scientist from the Center for Biological Diversity, Nate Donley, saying “The high mortality rate creates a sad business model for beekeepers…It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.” 1
Before you have that next glass of almond milk, you might want to read the whole Guardian article here.
And, consider watching this excellent video by the Roving Naturalist that details all of the environmental concerns surrounding almond farming and its related food products:
1McGivney A. “’Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession.” The Guardian, Age of Extinction series. 20 January 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
2Crane M. Culprit found for honeybee deaths in California almond groves. 4 February 2019. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2019-02-culprit-honeybee-deaths-california-almond.html
3Ferrier PM et al. Economic Effects and Responses to Changes in Honey Bee Health. USDA Economic Research Service Research Report No. 246. March 2018. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/88117/err-246.pdf?v=43186
4Goodrich B. A bee economist explains honey bees’ vital role in growing tasty almonds. 17 August 2018. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2018-08-bee-economist-honey-bees-vital.html
5Wade A et al. Combined Toxicity of Insecticides and Fungicides Applied to California Almond Orchards to Honey Bee Larvae and Adults. Insects. 2019 Jan 8;10(1). pii: E20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6359038/
6Aggeler M. Almond Milk Is Even More Evil Than You Thought. 8 January 2020. The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2020/01/almond-milk-honeybee-deaths.html?fbclid=IwAR06AJDgorVwzCoTgdpJ4Wwt67Mf9LePwdC74SXKAT_pzArHltaHhBUATfs
This Site Was Inspired By An Interest in Protecting the Environment:
We had the privilege and joy of learning from Dr. Charlie Stine who instilled a love for the natural world through incredible field trips with the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Certificate program in Environmental Studies. At the time, the program was endorsed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Sadly, after Dr. Stine retired, the program was phased out. We hope that we honor his legacy by shining a bright light on environmental issues and sharing good news about the success of various conservation programs when possible.
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