By Daniel Imhof, Courtesy of Vegetarian Times, June 2005
John Bayer lifts the lid from one of a half dozen hives in an almond orchard two hours southeast of San Francisco, a vanguard of honeybees circles around his unprotected arms, head and face. Hundreds of thousands of acres of almonds throughout California are cloaked in white blossoms on this February morning, meaning that another pollination season has begun; by May, the trees will begin to drop their excess "fruit." By late summer, the nuts will be drying on the ground, waiting for harvest.
Using a smoker, Bayer squeezes a few puffs into the open box and, with a putty knife, pries up a bee-laden wooden frame. He hesitates as crystalline nectar oozes back into the hive, or colony, and then holds up the honeycombed frame for me to see. Bare-handed, he points to some cells packed with clear honey, others with dark pollen and still more with three-week-old eggs.
Bayer's honeybees have been busy. This is fortunate because our food supply depends upon bees' productivity and their numbers, both of which are now more vulnerable than ever. One out of every three bites of food arrives on your table thanks to the work of billions of European honeybees (Apis mellifera), which shuttle pollen between male and female flower organs, a process that makes it possible for plants to produce seeds and fruit. Almonds aren't the only crops dependent on honeybees. So are apples, blueberries, broccoli, cauliflower, cherries, cucumbers, melons, pears, pumpkins, soybeans and squash - among others.
"Honeybees are extremely chemically sensitive," Bayer, a third-generation beekeeper, says. "Pesticides can be fatal to bees, and the presence of chemicals makes them very angry. I plead with growers to at least spray at night when the bees aren't flying, or even to stop using chemicals altogether.
Farmers' determination to spray their crops with herbicides and insecticides is one reason that American agriculture faces an imminent crisis. Pests, pesticides, disease and habitat loss have led to a 50 percent decline in the number of honeybees since 1950. Parasitic mites, which attack bees and which growers have also fought with chemicals, have become more chemically resistant, making honeybees even more vulnerable.
That Bayer has any hives at all is a testament to his skill and devotion. As a commercial beekeeper, he rents his bee colonies to growers across the state, trucking them from farm to farm. With each year, the almonds of other farmers take greater precedence over Bayer's own, which grow on land his grandparents worked.
When I visited Bayer in February, he had just returned home from the arduous task of hauling 2,500 colonies to and from 18 almond farms throughout the Central Valley. This left only three decrepit-looking bee boxes to pollinate his own 40 acres. "Customers first," he sighs.
The Deepening Bee Deficit
While honeybee populations have been declining steadily, the worldwide demand for almonds has boomed. High prices for almonds have led California farmers to devote more and more acreage to the nuts, which are more dependent than any other crop upon honeybees--they require 1.4 million colonies, or half of all commercial colonies in the entire United States. Compounding the problem was the loss of 250,000 California hives from the fall of 2004 through the winter of 2005 to causes scientists are still trying to figure out.
To meet the mounting demand for pollinators, growers are importing honeybees from as far away as Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Minnesota and even Australia. This transcontinental pollination system carries environmental costs, not least of which is the burning of fossil fuels. Hitchhiking along on the truck beds that carry the hives may be fire ants, beetles and other alien invaders - plus disease. All can create even more problems when they arrive at their new homes.
The deepening honeybee deficit means a windfall for beekeepers with healthy colonies, but inconvenience and ultimately higher prices for consumers. The fees that beekeepers charge farmers for renting their colonies have doubled overnight to $100 per hive, which will surely drive up what we pay for almonds. Eventually, however, the shortage of pollinators will result in lower yields--not just of almonds but of all honeybee-dependent crops. Come September, we may see a difference on our tables and feel it in our pocketbooks, in less variety and in bigger grocery bills.
A Hidden Industry
Bayer is one of just 2,000 beekeepers with 300 hives or more, managing three million colonies in the United States. "There aren't too many people who can say they derive their livelihood entirely from an insect," Bayer says proudly. "We're a 'hidden industry' that makes agriculture possible. For every dollar that I'm paid for pollination services, my clients generate $50 to $1,000 in crop revenues."
By year's end, Bayer will drive more than 50,000 miles, sometimes working 100 hours a week. He and his bees will move from almonds to cherries and pears, to broccoli, cauliflower and other brassicas, to alfalfa, and finally to cucumbers, squashes and melons. Then they will return to their wintering grounds in the relatively pesticide-free foothills of the Sierra Mountains for much-needed R&R.
Like all beekeepers, Bayer faces challenges that, if unmet, mean that millions more bees will die. In the 1980s, for example, when African bees interbred with European bees, the American South was inundated with hybrids that were extremely susceptible to cold. As soon as Bayer learned of the threat, he began to take his hives into cooler climates for the winter, where only the "non-Africanized" bees would survive. In this way, using his own highly educated, if selftaught, form of genetic selection, he has managed to breed hardier colonies. Other beekeepers who have not taken such steps to manage and protect their hives have paid the price: Bayer's brother lost 80 percent of his bees.
The constant shipment of bees from one crop to the next and from one climate to another seems incredibly resource intensive and even slightly irrational for a good reason: It is. Fifty years ago, Bayer says, there were twice as many honeybee colonies in North America and far fewer almond orchards. Then, farmers didn't pay beekeepers for pollination services. Fields and orchards were bordered with natural habitats--forests, fence rows and creek beds--living borders that attracted a diversity of insects, including bees and other pollinators, which can include other insects, hummingbirds and bats. Today, that's all changed - to no one's advantage.
A Natural Alternative
Fortunately, some far-sighted growers are opting out of this mad and ultimately unworkable system. Two hundred miles northwest of San Francisco is Capay Valley, a semi-wild and highly diversified farming region that is home to Full Belly Farm. In a former life, Full Belly grew almonds exclusively. Today, on 200 acres of organic orchards, pastures and farm fields, it raises asparagus, carrots, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables as well as cut flowers. Full Belly supplies farmers' markets, restaurants and 600 members of its Community Supported Agriculture operation. Full Belly is at the forefront of the "farmscaping" movement, which incorporates ground covers, plant strips and hedgerows of native plants carefully selected to attract a host of insects. Organic for more than 20 years, Full Belly is also self-pollinating.
"Our goal is to grow beneficial insects in addition to our crops," explains one of Full Belly's founders, Paul Muller, who points to a tractor-width strip of waist-high mustard plants, now glowing vibrant yellow, that separates a strawberry field from the stubble of last fall's broccoli. "We use a variety of plants to help reduce our pest-control costs. Some plants - rosemary, lavender, redbud and clover, among others - dish out a year-long feast of pollen and nectar sources for all kinds of insects, including honeybees."
For five years, biologists at the University of California, Davis, studied the insects that thrive at Full Belly, identifying, counting and tagging them to monitor their habits and numbers. More than 30 different wild pollinators - certain species of bees, flies, moths, butterflies and beetles - thrive in its chemical-free watermelon fields - enough to service not only the watermelons but also the entire farm.
Could Full Belly's approach be applied to California's immense almond farms? "We definitely need a back-up plan for pollination," explains Claire Kremen, PhD, a professor of evolutionary biology at Princeton University who headed the research at Full Belly. "At least seven wild bee species will visit almonds during the cold winter months. But to attract them, you need native habitat." On organic farms surrounded by wild areas, Kremen and her fellow researchers regularly find as many as 50 native pollinators.
Back to the Future
Bayer is hopeful, too - farmers have to be. But he worries that the honeybee shortage will first have to get worse before enough people realize that the current system is unsustainable.
"I see honeybees as the canary in the agricultural mine shaft, and right now, the canary is very sick," he says. "My hope is that the coming crisis will encourage the government and the rest of the agricultural community to get behind more research into the benefits of organic practices and into better bee breeding. Both will help us take better care of our crops and the bees that pollinate them." In the meantime, Bayer is planning to make changes on his own farm. "I'm thinking hard about my future," he says. "I could double the number of colonies I manage to take advantage of projected growth in the demand for almonds and to cover the escalating costs of insurance, fuel and time."
That's the sky's-the-limit trajectory the almond industry seems to be taking, but Bayer is reluctant to follow the crowd. "The other possibility is to move toward a smaller, organic and diversified system like the one my grandfather used - even using chickens to eat the insect pests."
For now, Bayer's almond orchard is a work in progress. He encourages native wildflowers to carpet the orchard to both fertilize the soil and provide pollen and nectar. "Our future depends on our willingness to listen to Nature's subtle directions," he says. "And Nature is speaking to us right now."
Daniel Imhoff, the author of Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World (Watershed Media/Sierra Club Books), grows fruit and olive trees in California.
Sweet on bees? For more information, contact the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, an alliance of more than 90 environmental groups, universities, government agencies and others dedicated to conserving bees, bats, birds and other pollinators.