California has an $11 billion almond industry that relies on honeybee pollination for survival. As the business continues growing, farmers are renting colonies from beekeepers to keep up with production. However, the exploitation of these bees is leading to billions of deaths every year, according to The Guardian.
Almond groves in California’s Central Valley cover an amount of land equivalent to the state of Delaware. Producing 2.3 billion pounds of almonds annually, the industry doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Over the past five years, U.S. almond milk sales have grown over 250 percent, reaching $1.2 billion in annual revenue.
Almond growers have become reliant on migratory beekeepers to pollinate their groves. These beekeepers tote their colonies around the country, leaving boxes of bees at various pollination sites before moving them along to another.
While bees are always at risk of dying due to disease and weather conditions, the ones that are sent to California’s almond fields have been dying in far greater numbers. This is mostly a result of ingesting pesticides, which is doused in greater absolute quantities on almond crops than anything else. One particular pesticide used on the nuts — herbicide glyphosate (known colloquially as Roundup) — is lethal to bees.
Another reason for the bees’ deaths is that almond pollination is especially demanding on the colonies — they must be woken from winter hibernation one to two months before they naturally awaken to begin the season. Additionally, as two-thirds of the country’s bees are concentrated in one area, diseases are easily spread among the populations, killing off greater numbers.
Beekeeper Dennis Arp, who has seen his bees die off in record numbers after sending them to the commercial farms in California, described how diseases are spread among bees.
“Bees are exposed to all kinds of diseases in California. There can be hundreds of thousands of hives from multiple beekeepers in one staging area. It is like letting your bees go into a singles bar and then they have unprotected sex.”
Arp said he loses 30 percent or more of his bees annually.
Commercial honeybees are considered livestock by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, due to the insect’s critical role in food production. However, because of the conditions and risks working in the almond groves, more bees die every year in the United States than all other animals raised for slaughter combined.
Patrick Pynes, an organic beekeeper who also teaches environmental studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, says that honeybees have become severely exploited due to the almond industry.
“The bees in the almond groves are being exploited and disrespected,” he said. “They are in severe decline because our human relationship to them has become so destructive.”