Almond growing in California is a $7.6 billion industry that wouldn’t be possible without the 30 billion bees (and hundreds of human beekeepers) who keep the trees pollinated — and whose very existence is in peril.
Honeybees on a removable frame from a bee box in the Central Valley. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times
Every February, white petals blanket first the almond trees, then the floor of the central valley, an 18,000-square-mile expanse of California that begins at the stretch of highway known as the Grapevine just south of Bakersfield and reaches north to the foothills of the Cascades. The blooms represent the beginning of the valley’s growing season each year: Almond trees are first to bud, flower and fruit. At the base of the trunks sit splintered boxes — some marked with numbers, some with names, some with insignias — stacked two boxes high on a wooden pallet that fits four stacks. Inside the boxes are bees, dancing in circles and figure-eights and sometimes just waggling. With almond season comes bee season. Everyone in the valley knows when it’s bee season. There are bee-specific truckers; motels occupied by seasonal workers; annual dinners to welcome the out-of-towners; weathered pickups with license plates from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Florida parked in front of orchards at all hours of the night. And those ubiquitous boxes.
This year the beekeepers responsible for those bees gathered on a mid-February Saturday for a potluck lunch at a community center in Kerman, a small town of ranch houses wreathed by acres upon acres of almond orchards. The meeting was supposed to kick off the pollinating season, but the beekeepers, many of them wearing tucked-in plaid shirts and trucker caps with dirt-curled bills, had already been at work for a couple of weeks, summoned to the state early by a heat wave. The sun beckoned the blossoms, and the blossoms begged for the bees. Farmers have a window of just a few weeks when pollination has to happen, otherwise the nuts won’t set, which is what it’s called when blossoms are pollinated and kernels emerge. When the nuts don’t set, much of a crop can be lost. By the time of the potluck, it seemed as if the season were already at its midpoint.
The beekeepers lined up to fill their paper plates with pork chops, baked beans, chicken, rice, salad and three different kinds of cake. Teri Solomon, the organizer of the event and a longtime local beekeeper, collected $10 each for lunch. A list of speakers was taped to the table where she sat — respected beekeepers, bee brokers, scientists, a Fresno County sheriff’s police detective and a rep from the Almond Board of California. Topics of the day included the steady growth of the almond industry, the science of pollination, agricultural theft (hence the cop) and the ever-more-imperiled state of honeybees. That last item carried the most weight with the crowd, as they were all struggling to maintain the vast numbers of bees needed for almond pollination. Bees are central to an enormous agricultural industry — about one of every three mouthfuls of food we eat wouldn’t exist without bee pollination — and beekeepers’ custodianship of billions of these delicate animals is as much an art as it is a science. Beekeepers themselves, Solomon confided, are funny creatures: solitary in the field, trying to anticipate the needs of a finicky insect and, unlike that insect, social only once in a while. “We’re an odd bunch, very individualistic in nature,” she said. “But we’re in trouble.”
Mostly the beekeepers and bee brokers — the agents who negotiate contracts between beekeepers and farmers — were trying to get a sense from one another of how badly bee populations had been hit, how much each was charging per hive and how much they could increase that price for the next season. There was talk of disease, pesticides, drought, floods, suburban sprawl, parasites. They talked shop: Which menthol strips are you using to inoculate your bees? How often do you change the treatment-laced pad placed in the hive to keep your bees healthy? Are the wafers or quick strips more effective for mites? Where do you apply them in the box, and for how long? Does the medication affect the performance of the bees? Can you get rid of a mite infestation, or are preventive measures the only option?
About 10 years ago, the nation was seized with alarm when a Pennsylvania beekeeper lost 90 percent of his bees. He found that entire colonies had abandoned their queen. Losses like this were reported across North America and in Europe, but no one knows exactly what caused the die-off that came to be called colony-collapse disorder (C.C.D.). There hasn’t been a reported case of C.C.D. in years, but bee populations within colonies are still declining, and many scientists point to parasites as the cause. Since 2006, annual winter losses in colonies have averaged more than 28 percent, nearly double the historical winter mortality rate of 15 percent; in 2015, the U.S.D.A. reported more losses in the previous summer than the winter for the first time ever. According to Gene Brandi, a former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, the current plight of the bee population can be summed up in the four P’s: parasites, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.
Pollination is a migratory practice now — more than two-thirds of America’s honeybees are mobilized for pollinating almond trees, and most come from out-of-state apiaries. One slide from the Almond Board rep showed the path of beekeepers who transport their colonies in semi-trucks around the nation seasonally — bees winter in Texas and Florida, head to California for almonds, then often summer in cooler states like North and South Dakota, where beekeepers will rebuild their colonies by splitting hives and feeding their bees manufactured protein patties and natural forage. The Midwest used to provide weeds, wildflowers and alfalfa for native and domesticated bees alike, but in the last couple of decades much of this food source has disappeared. Drought and suburban sprawl leave beekeepers with less open acreage for their bees to forage.
Last year, climate-intensified hurricanes and flooding along the Gulf Coast destroyed entire apiaries; they drowned blooms in Florida and led to the starvation of thousands of bees; wildfires in Santa Barbara and Ventura, Calif., killed more. And beekeepers need to worry not only about keeping their charges alive but also about keeping them from being stolen. Last year, just a few miles from Kerman, two men were arrested in association with what may be the largest bee heist ever, a three-year crime spree that added up to nearly a million dollars’ worth of stolen bees. A preliminary hearing is set for November. When one defendant was caught at a local bee yard with stolen boxes, local newspapers and major media outlets had fun with the bee heist, lacing copy with inevitable puns about sting operations. But the reality for beekeepers and bees is much more grave…