Bees are big business in California’s Central Valley and elsewhere. They are used to pollinate most of the crops the state produces. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, honeybees are used to pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that account for 90 percent of the world’s food.
A Sticky Problem
In California, growers hire beekeepers to move hives onto their orchards at pollination time. Almond growers are among the largest users of honeybees, and many hire Adee Honey Farms for pollination services. Adee Farms moves some 92,000 bee colonies around the state when almond buds blossom.
But a strange phenomenon is impacting both the honey and the almond businesses. A plague of sorts, called colony collapse, has been causing mass deaths in bee populations. Last year, 44 percent of the nation’s commercial bee population died from the mysterious illness. The cause of colony collapse is so far unknown. Some blame climate change, while others blame the use of certain pesticides, and others point to the Asian mite, a natural enemy to bees. A virus was thought to be the cause that launched the die-offs in 2006, but the virus is no longer present in bee populations. The cause of bee deaths could also be due to a combination of these and other factors.
Pesticides are often sprayed on crops at the same time bees are needed–at blossom. State law requires growers to carefully coordinate spraying and pollination efforts, but timing can be tricky and enforcing the regulations is difficult. In some counties, beekeepers can register the location of hives as they place them for pollination, and/or receive notifications of the time and location of pesticide applications. These programs are voluntary, however.
Each acre of almonds, and there are 11 million acres planted in California, requires two bee colonies for pollination. Colony collapse has led to higher prices in both honey and almonds, according to multiple reports, making it a priority for both industries to get to the bottom of the problem. The price of renting a bee colony has risen from $150 to $200–more than 30 percent–and that cost eventually shows up in the form of higher prices.
Another concern is the impact of bee death on honey quality. Americans consume some 400 million pounds of honey each year, and about 350 million of that is imported. As U.S. honey production decreases due to bee death, we become more reliant on international markets, and with that comes quality and safety are concerns. The European Union banned the sale of honey produced in India, for example, over concerns about toxins. Another concern is that Turkish honey, known for its purity, may not always be Turkish, instead being intentionally mislabeled to deceive customers.
Bring Back the Bees
Earlier this year, General Mills launched a “Bring Back the Bees” campaign, giving away wildflower seeds in its Honey Nut Cheerios boxes. The company claims to have distributed more than a billion seeds. They temporarily removed Buzz, the bee character that normally adorns product packaging, noting that “Buzz is missing because there’s something serious going on with the world’s bees. Bee populations everywhere have been declining at an alarming rate, and that includes honeybees like Buzz.”
More Research Needed
For nearly a decade, the bee population in the United States has been determined to below “acceptable” levels, as defined by the Bee Informed Partnership, a group formed in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The problem may not be solved or even more thoroughly researched under the current political climate. The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency was set to place bumblebees on the list of endangered species this year, but the plan was suspended by the Trump administration, pending further review.