Thought for Food Blog

California’s almond trade is exploiting one of nature’s most essential workers

Bees and almond farming | IFIS Publishing

‘Save The Bees’- the quintessential ecological battle cry for the modern day. Wherever you look, from news headlines and fashion trends, to environmental campaigns and alarming documentaries, we’re warned that if the bees go extinct, we’ll go with them.

Roughly 75% of crops require pollination help and without it, the losses are expected to be in their billions in global economic value. As such, we could probably say goodbye to apples, broccoli, peaches, and many other common food items. The effects from almond production, in particular, have received growing negative attention over the last few years due to their increased popularity. The rise in demand for almonds and their associated products has, in turn, exposed the damage done by large scale agro-industrial methods to one of nature’s most delicate processes.

California’s almond industry is responsible for churning out 80% of the world’s almonds and is worth almost $10.4 billion, with almond orchards occupying over a million acres in the region. It is estimated that 1 million tonnes of almonds are sold around the world annually. The soaring popularity of almonds is due, in part, to the rise of plant-based milks, cereal mixes, and packaged snacks.

Plant-based milks, such as almond milk, have become a staple for many supermarkets and coffee shops; with it being seen as the healthier option for you and the planet. In the US alone, almond milk sales have grown 250% over the past five years. However, unlike oat or soy, almond milk is not as environmentally friendly as one would hope. The BBC reported in February 2019 that "a single glass requires 74 litres (130 pints of water) - more than a typical shower." This is much more than oat or soy milk, but interestingly, still less than a standard glass of cow's milk. According to a report from Penn State, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond, accounting for close to 10% of the state’s annual agricultural water use. This is more than the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year - an astonishing demand for a regularly drought-stricken state.

The ever-increasing demands of this industry is putting huge strain on both the honeybees used to pollinate the almond orchards, along with the beekeepers who maintain the commercial hives. Beekeepers in the US now rely on renting their hives out to almond farmers to provide half of their revenue. During almond pollination season, more than 70% of all commercial honey bee colonies in the United States are used to pollinate almond orchards, which provides as much revenue for U.S. beekeepers as honey production. As such, beekeeping has become an essential cog in the machine of American industrial farming.

If the beekeeping industry begins to regress, then crop production will suffer and we will not be able to access a good food supply with the required variety.

The US Department of Agriculture considers commercial honeybees to be livestock, due to their crucial role in food production. However, more bees die every year in the US than all other animals raised for slaughter combined. Beekeepers now expect to lose roughly 30% of their bees per year. The death of a third of your workforce would be seen as a crisis in any other industry and would send shockwaves throughout the world – but this overwhelming loss is now considered the normal cost of doing business. This process is estimated to have wiped out roughly 50 billion honeybees over the 2018-2019 winter. According to a recent article in The Guardian, beekeepers across the US lost four in 10 of their honeybee colonies over the same time period – making this the worst winter on record for tracked bee populations, and has raised fresh concerns over the plight of these pollinators. Even as almond production increases, the number of commercial hives in the US has remained at a steady 2.7 million colonies since the early 2000s. With all the challenges beekeepers face, just maintaining the bare minimum of colonies is a huge struggle.

So how does the expansion of the almond industry play a significant part in the recent decline in honeybee populations?

Honeybee declines could be traced back to a myriad of problems: exposure to harmful parasites, decreasing crop diversity, loss of habitat, overindulgence in pesticide usage and poor beekeeping practices. The harmful practises are an inherent part of California’s ever-expanding almond industry, and the enabling of such practices allows us to make sense of the huge death toll. The pollination of almond orchards by honeybees is one of nature’s most delicate processes, and it is being increasingly damaged by large scale industrial agricultural methods, trying to force this natural process into a more and more mechanical one.

Bees and almond farming | IFIS Publishing

For the most part, it is not the small-scale farmers that are benefiting from the almond bloom. With the huge surge in overseas sales, almonds have drawn in huge financial players, all desperate for a piece of the action. More and more land is being converted to grow almonds, and such conversions require a lot of up-front capital, which is not a privilege many small-scale farmers have.

Due to increasing demand, almond growers have started to harvest their fields earlier than ever, resulting in poor beekeeping practices where bees are being exploited and disrespected. This process begins when beekeepers across the US are hired to transport their colonies cross-country to California’s Central Valley. Migratory beekeepers keep the wheels of this particular agricultural system in motion. Without these bees for hire, local pollinators would simply not be able to cope with demand and the almond industry would not exist.

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These beekeepers are having to split their hives to make up for the lost numbers over the winter, as well as using mail-order queens for the new hives and feeding the bees on corn syrup or ‘pollen patties’ – a simulated pollen substance – all to help repopulate their hives in the dead of winter, when the bees are supposed to be clustering around the queen and keeping her warm. This is already disruptive to the natural process, exposing the colony to colder temperatures. Beehives are delicate, complicated superorganisms. Bees are not traditionally supposed to move during winter. They build a colony, stay there, map out where everything is, and only tend to travel through a short three-mile radius for food if the temperature is right. Actively managed systems such as the beehives will potentially experience a small amount of movement but unsettling the bees’ winter dormancy to transport them to the seat of the global almond industry is a major contrast and puts them under huge stress.

Bees | IFIS PublishingThe bees are loaded onto trucks and transported cross-country in late winter / early spring. These poor practices also increase the risk of exposure to harmful parasites. The cross-country transportation of the hives concentrates them into a restricted area, serving as a transfer mechanism for the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor, who is itself a vector for several honeybee pathogens. Varroa mites latch onto honeybees and suck their ‘fat body’ tissue, stunting and weakening them, which can potentially cause entire colonies to collapse. Furthermore, as large quantities of the US’ commercial honeybee population will be concentrated in one geographic region at the same time, the risk of spreading parasites increases exponentially. There can be hundreds of thousands of hives from multiple beekeepers in one staging area, providing a melting pot for all kinds of diseases- having previously been described as ‘letting your bees go into a singles bar and then they have unprotected sex’.

Upon arrival at the almond orchards, the bees are presented with a huge monoculture to forage on, in contrast to the biodiverse landscape in which they would typically thrive. A lack of diversity puts them under even more strain. As true for bees as it is for us: variety is key to healthy eating.

The army of bees will spend the month of February foraging though a combination of toxic pesticides, which, since the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder was first identified in 2006, has been seen as one of the main culprits in the decline of honeybee populations. Pesticides are used for all kinds of crops worldwide, and almonds are no different, with around 35 billion lbs of pesticides used to coat them every year.

One of the most widely applied pesticides is Roundup, a staple of large-scale almond growers. The main ingredient is the herbicide glyphosate, and research has shown this is lethal to bees. One of the major classes of pesticides are a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which subsequently have been found to have many lethal and sub-lethal effects on bees. As such, many neonicotinoids have been banned in Europe, but in the US these pesticides have been allowed to remain on the market. Furthermore, a new insecticide called sulfoxaflor was recently introduced and has been licensed for use in more than 80 countries. In 2019 the Trump administration approved sulfoxaflor – which has various lethal and sub-lethal effects on bees, and could be just as harmful as neonicotinoids.

The issues with sulfoxaflor, as well as other pesticides such as clothianidin and dicamba, highlight a major fault in the policy and regulatory process, as many chemicals are not labelled as bee toxic, even if they can make the bees ill and weaken their immune systems. While bees may survive the pollination season, they may not last the winter, or may take back substances that gradually poison the entire colony. It is thought that the mix of fungicides, which are often needed for crop protection, insecticides, and substances called adjuvants -which are used to enhance the performance of the pesticides - may present the bees with a deadly combination. Adjuvants were originally used to help spread pesticides more evenly, making it more likely to come into contact with insects. Beekeepers are now advised to spend as little time in California’s Central Valley as possible. However, even if the almond farmers are restricting their pesticide usage, honeybees may still travel up to three miles in search of varied forage. Although the almond farmer is doing everything right to protect a pollination investment, the cotton or grape farmer down the road may be spraying bee-toxic chemicals on crops.

What can be done?

You have to admit, this does not look like a good situation for either the bees or the beekeepers. The challenges facing honeybees are complex and constantly evolving. Luckily, there is hope. Across the US many projects and organisations are seeking solutions to this large-scale problem. For example, Project Apis m.’s Seeds for Bees project has distributed plant seeds equivalent to 40,000 acres of foliage to California’s farmers. Now in its 7th year, the project hopes to increase the diversity, density, and duration of available bee forage while improving sustainability and soil health. Their hope is to provide diverse enough agriculture in the region to allow bees to be kept there year-round, reducing the number of rental bees and providing a more natural solution.

Seeds for Bees mixes, whilst providing the same seed mix all-round, are an improvement on the original monocultures previously available. They bloom at crucial times of the year when natural forage is rare, but the managed and native bees are active. These mixes are designed to meet the nutritional needs of honeybees and provide them with a more diverse diet, as well as also providing habitat and nutrition for other pollinators and beneficial insects. These diverse bee pastures do not hinder almond production practices, nor interfere with the harvest and other key farming activities. They also bring benefits to farmers by adding organic matter to the soil, increasing water infiltration, reducing erosion, and providing a natural weed control.

Other programs have been launched to help protect bees and to signal to consumers which products have been made with ‘bee-friendly’ methods, in a similar way to that of ‘fair-trade’ labels. The non-profit Bee Better, for instance, partners with almond growers to increase biodiversity for bees in their groves by planting wildflowers, mustard, and clover between the rows of almond trees, to provide an eco-friendly fence to keep bees in the orchard. Haagen-Dazs is the first major food company to carry the seal and it is hoped that many more will follow. The Almond Board of California has also tried to combat this issue by publishing best practices for growers to follow.

What can I do?

From the consumers perspective, it would be wrong to lay the blame on people and guilt them for killing bees. Of course, the strategy of shifting blame away from corporations and onto consumers is nothing new. The public are simply buying a highly marketed product, as is the corporation’s intention, but as usual we are burdened with the responsibility of the corporation’s actions. However, with organisations like the Bee Informed Partnership, POSHBEE, the Almond Board of California, along with researchers, almond farmers and beekeepers, the long-term sustainability of beekeeping and almonds becomes more and more achievable.

So, if you still want to have your almond milk, make sure to look out for the brands which have a bee friendly certificate and promote organic almond produce. But if you do not feel like almond milk is for you, there are plenty of environmentally friendly alternatives to indulge in.

Related posts:

Why Go Dairy Free?

Bees, Beeswax, Honey and Royal Jelly: Scientific Definitions

Insect Pollinators and Food Security


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Images by Ignacio F.and Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

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