In January, with the almond bloom in California’s orchards a month away, beekeepers across the country were fretting over their hives. A lot of their bees were dead or sick. Beekeepers reported losing as much as half their hives over the winter.
Jack Brumley, a California beekeeper, said he’d heard of people losing 80% of their bees. Denise Qualls, a bee broker who connects keepers with growers, said she was seeing “a lot more panic occurring earlier.”
Rumors swirled of a potential shortage; almond growers scrambled to ensure they had enough bees to pollinate their valuable crop, reaching out to beekeepers as far away as Florida, striking deals with mom-and-pop operations that kept no more than a few hundred bees. NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired a segment on the looming crisis in the almond groves.
By May, it was clear that California’s almond growers — who supply 80% of the world’s almonds — had successfully negotiated the threat of a bee shortage and were expected to produce a record crop of 2.5 billion pounds, up 10% from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the panic, it turns out, was justified. The results of this year’s annual Bee Informed Partnership survey, a collaboration by leading research labs released Wednesday, found that winter colony losses were nearly 38%, the highest rate since the survey began 13 years ago and almost 9% higher than the average loss.
The panic underscored a fundamental problem with the relationship between almonds and bees: Every year, the almond industry expands while the population of honeybees, beset by a host of afflictions, struggles to keep pace.
“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” Jeff Pettis, an entomologist who was then head of research at the USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory, said in 2012. And while the disaster Pettis warned of hasn’t struck yet, its likelihood grows each year.
There would be no almond industry without the honeybee, which so far is the only commercially managed pollinator available in sufficient numbers to work California’s almond fields. The industry is in the midst of a boom as Americans eat more almonds than ever. We consume more than two pounds per person each year in our granola bars, cereals and milk, along with regular old nuts, fueling an $11 billion market.
It’s not clear that boom is sustainable. Though concern about a bee shortage seemed acute this year, the pollination market for almonds has been tightening for more than a decade. In 2005, fear of a pollinator shortage was so great that the government allowed wholesale importation of honeybees for the first time since 1922.
California’s almond industry spreads over 1.4 million acres of the Central Valley. During bloom, which typically unfolds over three weeks in February, these orchards require the services of some 80% of all the honeybees in the country.
Honeybee colonies, on the other hand, have been dying at high rates. Historically, colonies died mostly during the winter. So when the Bee Informed Partnership started tracking colonies in 2007, it only looked at winter colony losses, which have ranged from 22% to this year’s nearly 38%.
Along the way, researchers realized that beekeepers had started losing a surprising number of bees in the summer, too, a season when all should be going well for bees. They started tracking annual colony losses in 2013, which have ranged between 33% and 45%. The loss for the year ending March 31 was 41%.
“We’ve had to bend the natural behavior of honeybees around almonds.”
The threat to the bees is multifaceted and existential. The varroa mite, an invasive species of external parasite that arrived in Florida in the 1980s, literally sucks the life out of bees and their brood. Herbicides and habitat loss have destroyed the bees’ forage. An array of pesticides, including dicamba and clothianidin, have been found to damage the bees’ health in a variety of ways, weakening their immune systems, for instance, and slowing their reproductive rate.
The process of getting the bees to the almonds adds another stressor. Each January, the sluggish bees are prodded into action much earlier than what would be their normal routine. They are fed substitutes for their natural foods of pollen and nectar so they will quickly repopulate the hive to be ready for almonds. They are then loaded onto trucks and shipped across the country, plopped in an empty field and fed more substitute food while they wait for almonds to bloom.
“We’ve had to bend the natural behavior of honeybees around almonds,” said Charley Nye, who runs the bee research operation at the University of California, Davis.
One reason beekeepers are less inclined to talk about this distortion of nature is that almond pollination has become their biggest single money-maker of the year, accounting for about one-third of their annual income in 2016. No other crop pays as well as almonds, so if a beekeeper misses almond pollination, it could cripple his business.
“They’re not dead, but if they don’t make it to almonds, then from an economic standpoint, they’re as good as dead,” said Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper, back in January when the panic was in full bloom.
“They’re not dead, but if they don’t make it to almonds, then from an economic standpoint, they’re as good as dead.”
In 2018, California had 1.1 million acres of almond trees bearing nuts and another 300,000 acres of trees still too young to need pollination. Each acre of mature trees is supposed to be pollinated by two honeybee colonies. There are between 10,000 and 15,000 bees in a colony when they arrive in the almond fields, and for the last four years, the U.S. has averaged 2.67 million colonies right before almond bloom.
You can do the math, but like Nye says: “As the almond acres grow, the demand for colonies seems to be outpacing the number of colonies that exist.”
The tight market has forced growers and brokers to expand their search for bees. “It used to be that we only dealt with operations that managed at least a thousand to 3,000 hives,” said Pettis, the former USDA entomologist. “Now people are pulling bees from smaller and smaller operators. They’re pulling bees literally out of people’s backyards and putting them on trucks to pollinate almonds. And while we used to only move bees from west of the Mississippi River, now we go all the way to Florida and New York state.”
Growers are also hedging their bets by securing more bees than they actually need, a strategy that only exacerbates the tight market.
The intel used to gauge the number of bees in the country is surprisingly imprecise. The bee count offers just a small snapshot in time and relies on beekeepers’ responses to a poll. The numbers are approximate, with undercounts more likely than overcounts. Yet the trend lines are clear: Unless something changes, at some point in the near future we won’t have enough bees.
Limiting colony losses is one way to change the trend. The honeybees’ biggest threat is the varroa mite. The USDA, Project Apis m., and both beekeepers and bee producers are currently conducting trials of a varroa-resistant bee that will work for commercial beekeepers. Also, researchers have been working for years on a backup to the honeybees for early-season crops like almonds. This bee, the blue orchard bee, is in the early stages of commercial production, and it will be years before it could make significant inroads in replacing some of the honeybees.
“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster.”
Meanwhile, there are signs that almond growers are becoming more amenable to bee-friendly practices such as modifying pesticide use and planting flowers in their orchards that would provide alternate forage for the bees while they wait for the almond bloom. Nye said some growers are getting “a little more sensitive to the job the honeybees are doing; they seem to be investing more in pollinators.”
Ultimately, a big part of the solution may be to reevaluate the number of colonies deployed per acre. “Those standards were set many, many, many years ago,” said Bob Curtis, a pollination consultant with the Almond Board of California, and a lot has changed since then.
For the last 12 years, almond groves have produced one-third more nuts than they did in the dozen years before that. Some orchard management practices have changed in that time, but growers also began requesting and paying a premium for stronger hives that contain more bees. Today, most of the colonies that go to almond groves contain twice as many bees as they did a few decades ago. Whether the higher production rate of the almond trees is due to more bees per colony, different management practices, or some combination of factors is hard to say.
Curtis said the Almond Board is undertaking new studies to determine if the stocking rate — the number of colonies per acre — could be adjusted, which would ease the pressure on embattled beekeepers to keep up with the surging almonds.
A lower stocking rate would also ease the stress on the bees themselves, but it wouldn’t stop them from dying in excessive numbers. Reversing that trend will require dramatically different approaches to everything from how we farm to how we use our land — things not likely to change anytime soon. The disaster Pettis warned of remains a very real possibility as honeybees continue to fight for their lives.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.