A blooming almond grove, with its acres of white blossoms fluttering in the breeze, looks beautiful from a distance. But those flowers are at the heart of one of the most pressing environmental issues in America. Industrial farming practices and intensive pesticide use is killing billions of honeybees each year, according to a frightening new investigation by Annette McGivney in The Guardian.
You might think that beekeeping is all about harvesting honey. But for many American beekeepers, selling honey is a tiny source of income compared to the real moneymaker: renting bee colonies to California almond growers. The state’s Central Valley is home to 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, according to The Guardian. Driven by skyrocketing demand (Americans consume more almonds on average than any other country), the farmland devoted to almonds in California has ballooned from 200,000 acres in 2000 to over 1.5 million acres today. All those trees need to be pollinated by bees in order to get a crop. But commercial beekeepers who bring their hives to California are seeing their insects die in staggering numbers.
A survey cited in the article shows that commercial beekeepers lost 50 billion bees during the winter of 2018-19. That’s a loss of over one third of all commercial bee colonies in just a single season.
Although various theories have been batted around since bees first started dying off in the early 2000s, environmentalists have zeroed in on one clear culprit: monocultures and pesticide use in American almond farming. Bees thrive in areas with lots of different plant life, but when they’re placed in almond orchards, they face a strict monoculture where only almond trees grow. On top of that, almond growers heavily douse their trees with pesticides—they get more chemicals than any other crop in California, according to documents cited by The Guardian. The pesticides can kill the bees or weaken their immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease.
Dennis Arp, a beekeeper that McGivney spoke with, reported that it’s not unusual for 30 percent or more of his bees to die in a typical year.
“Bees are exposed to all kinds of diseases in California,” Arp said. “There can be hundreds of thousands of hives from multiple beekeepers in one staging area. It is like letting your bees go into a singles bar and then they have unprotected sex.”
A new California law that tracks where hives are placed and when pesticides are sprayed might help spare bees from the worst chemical exposure, but it’s clear that serious change is needed to address the issue. And it starts with the way almonds are grown. To that end, the nonprofit Xerces Society has started the Bee Better certification program. As part of the program, growers agree to plant a mix of wildflowers and other plants in their groves to create a more natural, healthy habitat for bees. Food products that use produce from these farms get a special Bee Better seal (Häagen Dasz ice cream was the first brand to use the certification).
But the most effective solution is to grow almonds as nature intended—without pesticides and harmful chemicals. McGivney spoke with Glenn Anderson, an 81-year-old organic almond grower in California. Besides not using pesticides, he also allows other plants to grow beneath his almond trees. Although his yields are smaller than conventional almond groves, he believes his almonds taste better. It’s certainly much healthier for the bees.
“We have the opposite of colony collapse at my farm,” he said. “My beekeeper brings weak hives down that he wants to recharge on my property.”
Check out the full article here.
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