While making the documentary film Vanishing of the Bees, my co-director and I drove to California’s Central Valley for four years to film the world’s greatest almond bloom — a monoculture of 870,000 acres, solely dependent on honeybees for pollination.
Despite seven consecutive years of Colony Collapse Disorder, commercial beekeepers are still in business, thanks to the almond industry. These contracts provide 60 percent of beekeepers’ annual incomes. It’s too bad that, ironically, California’s almond groves are killing bees in vast numbers.
This codependent relationship between beekeepers and the almond industry comes at a price. Mother Jones reports that, according to the Pollinator Stewardship Council, “somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of the beehives in almond groves suffered ‘severe’ damage during the bloom, ranging from complete hive collapse to dead and deformed brood.”
Bee deaths post-almond grove have happened before, but this year something went especially wrong.
Eric Mussen, a bee expert at the University of California-Davis since 1976, recently told journalist Tom Philpott that while the almond grove always causes issues, this year’s troubles have been “much more widespread… the worst we’ve ever seen.” So what was different?
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First off, consider that, each spring, approximately 1.6 million hives — 60 percent of managed hives in the United States — are trucked to California from all over the country. White boxes dot rolling hills of pink and white, while their inhabitants pollinate 2 billion pounds of almonds, worth some $4.3 billion. In fact, the Golden State dominates the international almond market, providing for 80 percent of the world’s demand.
That said, however, almonds are treated with systemic pesticides, which have been linked to CCD. Furthermore, they are doused with fungicides. And now farmers are also making special mixes to boost potency.
Not long ago, Mussen discovered that beekeepers were having problems with dying broods and weren’t able to reproduce queen bees when pollen was contaminated with Pristine, a fungicide prevalent in the almond groves. Why then did the chemical’s manufacturer, BASF, find the chemical to be non-toxic to adult and immature honeybees?
The company eventually sent representatives to Central Valley to collect almond-pollen samples. In addition to their product, they found “significant” levels of an insecticide called diflubenzuron, but its maker, Chemtura, insists that diflubenzuron, too, is harmless to bees.
It turns out that growers are combining these two chemicals with ‘adjuvants’, agricultural spraying agents that are supposed to enhance the performance of pesticides. And they do — they synergize and become even more toxic.
In 2012, the peer-reviewed PLOS ONE published a study by Penn State University researchers, who found that, when consumed at low doses, adjuvants inhibited bees’ ability to learn how to forage, compromising the long-term health of their hive.
Adjuvants are considered “inert” and aren’t subjected to Environmental Protection Agency review. Farmers who use them at whim aren’t breaking any California or U.S. Department of Agriculture rules.
The result is all these poisons are weakening the honeybees’ sensitive immune systems, making them unable to defend themselves and susceptible to disease. It also doesn’t help that the bloom hosts millions of social insects from different hives.
Then there are those damaging details preceding pollination. Honeybees are trucked across the country, stressing their systems, and forced to eat the same diet for four weeks at a time rather than feasting on the mélange of flower proteins nature provides.
Not only do their diets become depleted, but the honey (their own food) is also removed to lighten the load before hitting the road. It’s all a recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, it has become more lucrative for beekeepers to truck their bees to the almond grove – a huge undertaking involving truck stops, long hours, cranes, and semis – than to sell the honey the bees produce.
“Without the almond industry, the bee industry wouldn’t exist,” one large-scale beekeeper told the Bakersfield Californian in February.
Beekeepers such as David Hackenberg have asked growers to keep these poisons far away from the bees when crops are in bloom but to no avail.
Why would the almond growers risk harming the insects they are so very reliant on?
And why would we ever eat conventional almonds that are drenched with poisons and made dead on arrival from pasteurization, which is mandatory prior to the sale of all raw almonds grown in the USA?
Watch best-selling author Michael Pollan speak about monoculture and dying honeybees:
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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