by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Bees

Feb 11 2020

California’s almond crop: the bee business

Almonds are great foods, and almond trees are beautiful, especially when in bloom (a lovely thought on a bleak winter’s day).

To produce almonds, the blossoms have to be pollinated, a job done by bees.

The bees don’t just appear spontaneously.  Getting them to orchards is a for-profit business enterprise.  

Most varieties of almond trees require cross-pollination – the transfer of pollen from one tree variety to another – to produce any nuts at all….Roughly 1 million acres of almond trees collectively bloom over a three-week period every February, creating spectacular scenic views but also putting enormous pressure on the farmers to pollinate them quickly. Each almond acre requires roughly two honey bee hives, each of which typically houses one colony of about 20,000 bees. With 2 million hives needed, that’s well more than half of the total U.S. hive population.

Unfortunately, trucking beehives around from one orchard to another is hard on the bees.

As The Guardian recently put it, using bees to fertilize almond orchards is “Like sending bees to war.” and “the truth behind your almond milk obsession” is deadly.

A recent survey of commercial beekeepers showed that 50 billion bees – more than seven times the world’s human population – were wiped out in a few months during winter 2018-19. This is more than one-third of commercial US bee colonies, the highest number since the annual survey started in the mid-2000s.

Beekeepers attributed the high mortality rate to pesticide exposure, diseases from parasites and habitat loss. However, environmentalists and organic beekeepers maintain that the real culprit is something more systemic: America’s reliance on industrial agriculture methods, especially those used by the almond industry, which demands a large-scale mechanization of one of nature’s most delicate natural processes.

FoodNavigator USA.com has issued a Special Report on this topic: “Bee friendly?  Pollinating California’s almond crop.”  It gives the almond industry’s view of the bee problem and its various causes.

The truth, as always, is more complicated, claims Dr Josette Lewis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of California, who likes to preface any conversation on this topic with the observation that almond growers are pretty motivated when it comes to ensuring honey bees are healthy and happy, given that it costs them almost $400/acre (two hives at c. $200 apiece) to hire these furry little pollinators upon which the success of their crop entirely depends. (To put this in perspective, it cost an average of $160/acre—two hives at c. $80 apiece – in 2005).

There is a “Bee-Friendly Farming” initiative among almond growers, but only about 10% are using it.

Regulation, anyone?

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Jun 9 2014

New book for city folk: The Rooftop Beekeeper

Megan Paska: The Rooftop Beekeeper: A Scrappy Guide to Keeping Urban Honeybees.  Chronicle Books, 2014.

Megan Paska sent me a copy of her new book and I’m so glad she did.  I know lots of people who want to try raising bees in their home towns but don’t know how to start.

Now I know what to tell them.  Read this book.

It covers what bees are, why they matter, why you should raise them, why cities are great places to raise them, how to start, what you need—hives, nets, food, and the like—where to put them, and how to take care of bees in every season.

And it provides recipes for doing wonderful things with the overabundance of honey your bees are likely to produce.

I particularly like this section:

What to say to your neighbors.

Bee stings hurt.  It’s easy to see why many people assume that they’re going to die when they get stung by a bee…The fact is that bees already live with us, even in a city…Next time you are at a park or see a planted flowerbed on the street, consider not only the honeybee but also other wild pollinators you will likely see there, drifting from flower to flower…As beekeepers, it’s part of our job description to enlighten others to this simple fact: Bees are not so different from us.  They live for one another, and they can’t thrive without community.

Mar 15 2013

Drug corporations 1, Bees 0

Everybody is, or should be, worried about the health of bees.  Without them, we don’t have pollinated agriculture.

Bees, the New York Times tells us in an astonishing statistic, “pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food.”

Bees are not doing well, and nobody really knows why.  Could colonies be collapsing because of a virus?  Mites?  Stress?  Or, as in the case of a leading hypothesis, insecticides used on crops?

Europeans worried about a particular class of highly effective insecticides widely used in production agriculture—neonicotinoids—proposed to restrict their use in flowering crops for two years.

But the European Union voted today to allow use of neonicotinoids to continue, even though the European Food Safety Authority recommended against this.

Also as discussed in the New York Times,

Companies that produce neonicotinoid-based pesticides, including the German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, the big Swiss biochemical company, have lobbied strenuously against the moratorium. Monsanto incorporates the chemical into some of the seeds it produces; in the United States, neonicotinoids are heavily used on the country’s huge corn crop.

Some nations in Europe already restrict use of these insecticides, but not all.

The Times quotes officials of companies that make neonicotinoid insecticides, Bayer and Syngenta.  The officials say:

  • The science is uncertain.
  • Banning them would jeopardize agricultural competitiveness.
  • Prices of food, feed, fiber and renewable raw materials would rise.
  • 50,000 jobs would be lost.

This comes right out of the standard industry playbook.  Anything that harms bees in the short term has long term consequences.  Shouldn’t officials be looking at long-term strategies for protecting bees.  Bees need help!  And so will we, if we don”t help them now.