Thursday, April 4, 2013

What is the Connection Between Honey Bees and Almond Farming?

Honey bee. © Beatriz Moisset

These days we hear a lot about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other problems that plague bees and cause their numbers to plummet. We also hear about the concern for crops, that of almonds in California, in particular. Every year millions of bee hives are shipped to California to provide pollination for almonds during the brief period of their bloom. Beekeepers know that transporting bees and making them pollinate a monoculture such as almonds are stressful to them.

Statistics about the declining numbers of bee hives are confusing, at least to me. Some vary widely but they all indicate that numbers are down and continue to drop. What I find confusing is that you frequently hear about repeated annual losses of 50% or so. This would mean that, in a few years, bee populations would bee reduced to insignificant numbers. But this is not exactly what is happening. The situation is bad, but not extreme. This USDA graph published by Yale Scientific Magazine may help clarify things. Bear in mind that statistics refer only to honey-producing hives, not to hives used for crop pollination. There has been a decline of about 50% in the last 50 years, the most dramatic drop took place in the 1980s, when parasitic mites arrived in the US. Unfortunately, the graph doesn't cover recent years, though.

Even more puzzling is that, although the numbers of bees have been dropping, the acreage of almond cultivation has been growing dramatically in recent years. CCD or not, almond crops continue to be pollinated by honey bees.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations the area covered with almond trees in the United States in 1969 was 151,000 acres (62,000 hectares). Recent statistics by the USDA (2012 California Almond Forecast) show a steady growth of acreage dedicated to almond trees in California, from 418,000 acres (169,000 hectares) in 1995 to an estimated 780,000 acres (316,000 hectares) in 2012. In summary, almond cultivation in California has grown about 500% in the past 40 years.

Spring in the Orchard
Note the bare ground under the trees, sign of herbicide use  © Kelsey J Nelson. 2010 Flickr

My questions are: how do diminishing populations of honey bees manage to pollinate increasing numbers of almond trees? Does transporting bees annually have something to do with this pollinator's difficulties? We know that this is stressful to the insects. We also know that the convergence of so many hives from so many areas of the country into one point is conducive to the spread of pathogens. So, perhaps, this practice is contributing to the problems that bees face.

I have no answers, but hope that somebody out there does.

© Beatriz Moisset


  1. I thought that colony collapse disorder was a fairly recent phenomenon - a major problem only in the last 7 years or so. I have also understood that some of the native pollinators are helping out with crop pollination, although they are also being hit by population losses.

    If CCD is of this recent origin, then the numbers we need to be looking at are almond acreage changes just from about 2005 to the present. Studies comparing percentage of pollination carried out by honey bees vs. native bees would also be of interest...if, indeed, such data exists prior to CCD concerns.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It made me realize that I needed to discuss the statistics going back more than 50 years; so I updated the post. If I didn't comment here, it would look like you hadn't read the post in its entirety and I don't want the reader to get that impression.

  2. Thanks for your comments. A couple of things to consider are:

    The number of bee hives has been declining for more than fifty years. CCD is the last straw; this is the only part of the story most people know. According to pre CCD statistics there were half as many bee hives in 2000 than in 1950 (I don't have the exact numbers handy, I will look them up). Another problem with statistics is the way data are collected. The Dept. of Agriculture asks beekeepers the number of "honey producing hives". Most of the hives used for pollination don't produce honey, so they are not reported. The ones sent to California every year fall into this category. I will check again with some of my beekeeper friends, but I have heard this repeated times from exasperated beekeepers.

    As for native pollinators, Rachael Winfree of Rutgers U. did studies on pollination of watermelons by native pollinators and honey bees in two types of farms. The ones in Eastern PA and NJ are small farms; some are surrounded by suburban developments with their gardens. There are abundant non-managed pollinators nearby and they perform some or most of the pollination, regardless of the presence of honey bees. The farms in California are large monocrops pollinated entirely or almost entirely by honey bees. The almond tree fields are also huge monocultures, so it is unlikely that native pollinators can do much pollination or even survive in those conditions. Take a look at the Roundup-treated soil under the almond trees in the picture I posted.

    For these reasons, I am still waiting for a serious analysis of this issue. I would love to see almond growers change their practices to more natural methods.

  3. Forgive these questions from a newbie to pollinators. I didn't know there were hives that weren't honey producing. Or is this just a classification indicating the purpose for which the bees are used? Don't the almond pollinating bees do their "thing" back at the hive and make honey? Or are they too stressed to do that?

    Thanks Beatriz - Hal

  4. Pollination services can be stressful to the bees between transportation and working a monoculture. They usually produce barely enough honey to see them through the winter. In fact, beekeepers often have to supplement their diet with sugary water, and even add other nutrients to the sugar. Or they resign themselves to losing some hives.
    This is not always the case. Some beekeepers rent their hives to local orchards, often with the agreement that no pesticides will be used during that time. Or even request permission to place their hives in neighbors' orchards. It works to everybody's benefit.
    I am no beekeeper, so my knowledge ends here. Others could tell you a lot more.
    It seems to me that a system of growing huge almond tree monocultures and trucking millions of hives for thousands of miles goes against nature and can't be sustainable. But that is just my opinion.

  5. Thanks Beatriz - I have beekeeping friends so that'll give me some good intelligent questions to ask - hal

  6. The California almond industry has had record yields.

    I live in the heart of almond country, with only one almond tree, and have not seen a lack of honey bees. Right now the honey bees are very busy pollinating my lemon tree.

    Is it possible that this colony collapse disorder has been overstated, possible by groups with a political agenda?

    1. Thanks for comment. Your remark matches some of the statistics shown here:
      Almond acreage keeps growing, yield per acre also keeps growing. Pollination costs are slightly up, but so are labor, materials, pruning, and fuel costs. No sign of a pollination crisis.
      I continue to be perplexed by the contradictions and I keep hoping to find a clearer answer.

  7. In June 2013 Marla Spivak gave a TED talk on Why bees are disappearing
    A comment by Paul Strommer is very enlightening. He presents an issue that deserves serious discussion but never gets mentioned.

    "Now for some cold water. Maybe it isn't pests, pesticides, and modern agriculture. Maybe it is beekeeping itself. Maybe it is big commercialized migratory pollination operations that are really to blame... Think about it. As a bee you live only 30 days (in summer) and only about 14 days is spent foraging so your orientation to the native environment is important: Plants, altitude, temperature, magnetic north, the sun. Yet you travel by tractor trailer from the great lakes in summer, to Florida for the holidays, then to California in late January (think almonds), then back to the great lakes for spring, then the cranberry bogs and blueberry operations in the northeast etc. etc. etc.
    Think about the picture of the hundreds of bee colonies on the back of a tractor trailer. After three days on the road (bees don't poop inside the brood box), no flying allowed, they lift a giant insect net and out they fly. Bees have no way of making it back to their original colony with any level of certainty.
    MS mentions the onset of CCD in 2006. From 2006 to the present the California Almond crop has doubled from 1 billion to 2 billion pounds and almond pollination in that time became the number 1 most profitable pollination crop for migratory beekeepers.
    Anybody beekeeper will tell you:
    1) Bees, do not do well under stress. When stressed they die from disease, parasites.
    2) In a natural environment (one in which bees reproduce/swarm on their own) a 70% survival rate is really good.
    3) Beekeeping is about preventing bees to act naturally. For example, bees are bred specifically for low propolis production. Bees want to swarm but swarming is bad.
    There is so much outrage over how chickens, pigs, and cows are raised commercially. Honeybees are also livestock and (in my opinion) are being worked to death, by commercial pollination operations that don't care about genetics, honey, or the environment. They address maladies with chemicals and antibiotics not IPM."