Holy honeybees! Where have all my almonds gone?

Almonds need beesIt’s a fact that most fruit and nut trees rely on cross pollination of their blossoms to produce fruit. This pollination is accomplished by the symbiotic relationship between sweet blossoms and nectar-seeking honeybees. The single most important factor to determine a good yield is the pollination that comes from honeybees. The National Resource Defense Council provides some great facts on “Why we need Bees”.

But what happens when there aren’t enough honeybees to do the job? What happens to our food supply when more honeybee colonies collapse? 

We are starting to feel the ramifications and our beloved almonds are just the beginning.

The global almond wholesale market, a mainstay for confectioners and cereal-makers, is worth about $5 Billion. Almond orchards in California, which account for 80 per cent of the world’s crop, require 1.5 million beehives every year to achieve this epic yield. California beekeepers alone cannot supply this critical need, so millions of honey bees are transported across the country to the San Joaquin Valley each spring. Despite this great migration there weren’t enough honeybees last year to properly pollinate the almond crop. Beekeepers reported record-breaking honeybee losses of more than 40% just last season alone!

Now it’s the buyers and sellers of almonds who are feeling the loss of honeybees as the prices of almond snacks and almond sweets rise sharply higher. As California’s almond orchards are hit by a decline in bee colonies, up goes the price of almonds. The wholesale price of almonds has reached an eight year high, with the figure expected to continue to rise as honey bee populations’ decrease. California almond growers are also feeling the pinch with lower yields. Without bees, there are no almonds. California growers have been promoting almonds for years and one farmer indicated they now need to start promoting bees!

Chances are more of our food will be affected until we solve this dilemma. Estimates are that 30% of our food is produced with the help of pollinators and 50% of all items in the produce department depend on pollination– everything from apples to zucchini.  Last spring Whole Foods Market made a drastic display of how honeybee survival affects our food supply. The University Heights Whole Foods Market store in Providence RI removed all produce that comes from plants dependent on honeybees and other pollinators. You can view the shocking pictures here to visualize what would happen if the honeybees disappeared completely.

Science tells us there are multiple factors contributing to the honeybee dilemma. Certain toxic pesticides play a clear and present role, according to a report published by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). The report concluded that a class of pesticides known as Neonicotinoids  posed an acutely high risk to pollinators.  The European Union has taken proactive action and imposed a 2 year ban on these pesticides, beginning in December 2013.  In North America, Greenpeace launched a grassroots campaign urging the EPA to impose a similar moratorium in the US. You can also sign The Center for Food Safety letter  urging the leader of EPA to suspend the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides.

Because Organic Agriculture does not allow these toxic pesticides, the single most important thing you can do is to buy and eat organic products. The second most important thing you can do is urge all your friends, family members and loved ones to do the same.  Let’s keep our pollinators healthy and our almonds available for everyone to eat.

6 thoughts on “Holy honeybees! Where have all my almonds gone?

    • As a backyard beekeeper, rescuer/re-homer of feral bees found in conflict with humans in the urban environment, and a mentor to new beeks for using ONLY feral, genetically diverse bees, I can tell you the media is doing a mostly terrible job of reporting on CCD and pollinators in general.
      First, many of the beekeepers of migratory operations (the ones trucking bees hundreds of miles from state to state) are at fault for the poor vigor of the bees they keep. What is not being explained to the public is the bees these operators are using are subject to antibiotics, acaricides, HFCS feeding regimens (which disrupt the gut microbes of the bees, compromising immune response) and intense genetic selection for larger, more docile and more genetically uniform honeybees. The bees suffer great immune stress in being hauled by semi-truck with no food or water and constant hive jostling.
      Second, American Ag schools are complicit in pushing this poorly bred model of shallow genetics, larger bees —after all, ‘bigger is better’ , eh?—and ignoring immune system vigor/gut microbe balance and the in-hive chemical treatments that are driving down resistance to the imported plethora of Asian diseases and pests. Artificial insemination of Queens, yearly replacement of Queens, drone semen selection, is all part of a human-centric posture of control that is actually an illusion. Bee breeding is a big business, just like a lot of industrial agriculture.
      Third, farmers have become so dependent on the migratory honeybee that much of the native pollinators, who can actually be MORE efficient and effective, have been driven to extinction—or at least driven from most of the Central Valley, where all those almonds are grown. There is NO FORAGE for any pollinator after the almond bloom is over, because the thousands of acres of mono-crop almonds is scraped clean of any weeds beneath it, and all verge areas are also devoid of natural growth. It is a food desert for pollinators. For a clear view of this egregious situation, as well as on-site fungicide orchard spraying going on while bees are foraging—killing them—see the new doc film “More Than Honey”. It’s horrific how blase’ our attitudes. At some point, my feeling is, the price paid for migratory pollination will become so untenable, that farmers will re-evaluate the wisdom of sterile thousands of acres, and start removing every fifth row to plant as permanent forage for on-site pollinator support and viability. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has articles on this change that is desperately needed to diversify pollinator services and create truly sustainable agriculture models.
      Fourth, the genetic weaknesses I mentioned ARE known to be factors in the rise of CCD, and the government DOES know the many insults occurring to the immune systems of bees (and all pollinators) but the strength and power of Big Ag and Big Pharma/Chem is such that the exclusive investigative research into “what’s causing CCD” was awarded to the very company making tons of the implicated chemical class, neonicotinoids—Bayer Crop Science. Our EPA is at the root of this assignment, which so clearly shows the collusion and corruption of public policy and investigation. Neonicotinoids are now one of the most widely used class of systemic pesticides—systemic meaning every part of the plant is contaminated, which for bees is the pollen, nectar, or night-dew water droplets foraged and brought back to the hive. Bioaccumulation of these toxics and synergenistic effects with other chemicals are how bees encounter these chemical residues in Nature, but the chemical companies are not bound to test their products in this “real world” scenario. They test their chemicals in careful isolation in the lab and then gain permission to dump these poisons on the market, with the caveat that “the label instructions are sufficient to prevent incorrect applications”—what a farce.
      Fifth, even those in organic honey production have now been granted usage of formic acid for their product, under pressure from the chemical believers on the NOSB. This chemical is used for treatment of varroa mite, but is a serious erosion of the organic brand which would normally dis-allow chemicals in the production of organic honey. Formic acid is very toxic and must be applied with great care by operators to avoid human health effects.
      So, the reasons for honeybee decline are multipronged, most of the reasons lie right at the foot of the human managers of bees and the growers of crops, and the larger picture is we must be more careful to mimic natural systems instead of constantly applying human devised “fix-its” which we do not investigate for the many potentially harmful unintended consequences. The great diversity of the genetics carried by the feral bee populations, bees capriciously exterminated in many cases, represent a reservoir of vigor and persistence that most folks in the “conventional” bee world are very dismissive of.

      • Susan,
        This is really great information. The outline you provided on the multiple causes of honeybee decline is excellent and points out that the issue is not easily solved. I wish I had consulted with you before I wrote the blog! Thank you again

        Melody L Meyer
        VP Policy and Industry Relations UNFI
        phone 401.528.8634 ext 62225
        Fax 831/462-5718
        SKYPE melody.meyer
        Visit my Blog at http://www.organicmattersblog.com

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