Almond production in California is an agricultural endeavor that impacts many interested parties and often in conflicting ways. While it seems production can be detrimental to bee populations, a complete cessation would hurt the beekeepers who raise them, plus make a dent – no, a chasm in the economy of California.
Sensationalism aside, the almond production in California is a complex situation that impacts bees, beekeepers, farmers, and even you. Any cafe in a five-mile radius of your house likely carries almond milk as an option for lattes and there are shelves and shelves of it at the grocery store. Yes, the regular grocery store. Not even just cooperatives and Whole Foods. Almond milk became part of the fabric of our lives a few years back and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
How do we make sense of such a complex issue and what, if any solutions, will help us move forward? Let’s look at each of the interested parties and break down their motivations, their concerns, and end with some potential solutions.
Almonds are, without a viable replacement and massive infrastructure change, vital to the economy of California. In fact, California is vital to the world’s almond consumption, producing 82% of almonds consumed across the globe. Nearly 70% of the almond harvest gets sent overseas making almonds California’s number one export.
If you eat almonds, they likely came from California.
This includes a salty roasted snack, that dairy substitute in your latte, even marzipan in some of the elegant cakes at the patisserie down the road. Chances are, all those almonds came from California.
Considering how big of a deal almond production is for California, it doesn’t seem reasonable to jump to shutting the whole thing down. You’d be shutting California down.
California faces its own, internal challenges with almond production. Recent years saw severe drought across the state and almonds do require a decent amount of water to end up in your granola bars. California diverts 10% of its water – 80 million gallons – to grow the satiating nut.
California almonds depend on managed bees. Almond trees require pollination and with the massive amounts of trees popping out almonds every spring, that’s a lot of bees shipped into the state every January and February. Numbers top 1.5 billion colonies (which is a lot of individual bees and math I’m not going to do right now).
However, California’s almond groves are often monocultures; there is little crop diversity in almond groves, which leaves poor foraging resources for bees. With nearby crop fields using harmful pesticides and bees forced to travel for diverse nectar and pollen resources, it’s no wonder bees aren’t doing so hot. More on that below.
Motivation: Keep the economy afloat, provide the world with tasty, tasty almonds
Concerns: Water supply, bee health, the livelihoods of almond farmers
Yep. You heard it here. Managed bees are considered livestock. These tiny insects travel far throughout the year so we can enjoy some of our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
Managed bee populations start the year in California, pollinating almonds into February. In spring, trucks carry them to the Pacific Northwest where apple orchards get the bee treatment. Then, in May the bees travel to North Dakota to create honey from canola, sunflowers, and clover.
When managed bees travel to areas they are not accustomed to, competition can be a challenge and it’s reciprocal. Diseases can spread from managed bees to wild bees and back again. It’s like all the bees are on a boat and one of them gets dysentery. Pretty soon, all of them have dysentery.
Additionally, bee colonies compete for resources, which can be a detriment to wild bee populations. This doesn’t even touch on the issue of pesticides.
While almond farmers often abstain from heavy pesticide use or only use FDA-approved pesticides that are considered bee-safe, there is still pesticide exposure through foraging behavior. And it gets more complicated than that.
Let’s break this down. There are pesticides and there are adjuvants. Each pesticide undergoes testing and may be found to be bee safe at accepted levels of use. However, adjuvants do not have to meet the same requirements and there is no system for measuring whether all of these chemicals are safe to use together.
Think of baking soda and vinegar. They seem pretty stable on their own, right? But, when you mix them together, the combination produces sputtering and bubbling.
One such example is the use of a German fungicide called Pristine and an insecticide called diflubenzuron. These combined with recently developed adjuvants, which were created in the laboratory to not only coat leaves, but also penetrate them, could be hazardous for bees. There is some preliminary research showing how these newer classes of adjuvants may impact a bee’s ability to learn how to forage.
And a bee that can’t forage is a bee that can’t survive.
Plus, bees from areas of the country where overwintering occurs must be woken up 1-2 months early to pollinate almond trees and we don’t really know how much this early awakening could be impacting their health and wellbeing.
For the beekeepers that care for them, they have all the same concerns as the bees plus their own.
Motivation: perpetuate brood, forage as much as possible, keep the colony healthy
Concerns: lack of diversity in diet, the spread of diseases, pesticide exposure
We can’t forget that for the beekeepers who ship their bees to California, this yearly exodus is a source of income and a huge part of their livelihood.
While honey is delicious and most people have at least one jar in their cupboard, it’s not the most sustainable way for beekeepers to support their families.
Sharing their colonies with our agricultural sector is a solution to their own need to survive.
Since each acre of almond trees requires two beehives for pollination, almond groves require half of the U.S. hive population to serve their needs. That’s a lot of bees and a huge income potential for beekeepers. In fact, there’s such a demand, beekeepers often have to split their colonies just to keep up. Unfortunately, this reduces their profit.
Profit isn’t the only issue beekeepers face.
Much of what we’ve talked about up to this point impacts beekeepers as well. When their bees are exposed to large amounts of pesticides in a somewhat uncontrollable environment, they see the impact when their brood just isn’t as hardy.
The exposure to wild bee populations as well as hundreds of thousands of other managed bees means a rapid spread of diseases. It’s a potentially catastrophic outcome for beekeepers.
Then, even at home, the Varroa mite is always an issue to contend with and beekeepers are accustomed to winter losses. They expect it.
The business of pollinating almond groves is one of numbers. Each almond tree requires two hives for pollination. When you have over one million acres of almond trees blooming every February, that’s a lot of bees.
Third-party inspectors travel to the almond groves to measure colony strength. They open up the hives and pull out removable frames. If the hive has eight frames with noticeable bees, it’s enough bees to pollinate the nearby trees. Thus, the colony is strong.
Unfortunately, losses are part of this business, too, and beekeepers last year lost four out of 10 of their colonies in winter 2018-2019.
Beyond the numbers, there are beekeepers with decades of experiences and the bees they’ve learned to interact with, bees that sometimes become like family. These people and their insects need viable solutions.
Motivation: keep bees alive and well, support families
Concerns: loss of income, pesticide exposure, colony collapse disorder, Varroa mites
Despite the dire outlook, there are viable solutions, some easier to implement than others. Fortunately, a lot of these solutions are already in process. Here’s the rundown:
It’s easy to put the burden of change on individual consumers. Yet, this just absolves the people in power of responsibility for addressing issues that impact all of us.
If we all drink less almond milk, it doesn’t address the water crisis in California. It doesn’t reduce China’s demand for almonds, or the use of pesticides on almond groves. Each piece of the issue must be addressed and the solution will ultimately be multifactorial.
As individual consumers, we can choose where we spend our money. We can also put pressure on people who have the money and the means to address the systemic issues facing almond production and encourage them to do so.
When it comes to bees, we must remember we all have a voice and our voices together create a chorus that inspires true change.