A Record Number of Honeybees Died Last Winter—Here's Why Our Love of Almonds Might Be to Blame
According to a new survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit initially sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture, bee colony deaths continue to rise in the United States at increasing rates. Beekeepers in the U.S. lost around 38 percent of their honeybee colonies last winter, which is the greatest reported amount of losses since the group began surveying honeybee populations 13 years ago. The reported annual loss between 2018 and 2019 was also above average.
While ecologists have previously shared that habitat loss and bacterial diseases have driven bee populations to a minimum in the last decade, an in-depth investigative report from NPR reveals that another force may be adding even more stress on honeybee populations: the almond industry. According to NPR, the American almond industry has been growing steadily each and every year-and beekeepers and farmers are struggling to keep up with the pace of growth. Americans consume more than two pounds of almonds each and every year on average, including almonds that are found in granola bars, cereals, and milk, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. And without bees to pollinate fledgling almond trees, almond farmers wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand.
Researchers have reported high death rates for honeybee colonies in the past-historically, the rates are high during the winter season, so the Bee Informed Partnership began tracking overall rates in the winter in 2007 (at this time, the rate was just above 20 percent). But researchers eventually noticed that beekeepers were reporting high death rates during the summer, too, which is normally when bees thrive. According to the environmentalists at the organization, there are many threats to bees currently: an invasive external parasite called Varroa mite as well as pesticides, including clothianidin and dicamba, used in modern farming. These agents are weakening their immune systems and slowing their reproductive cycles.
But NPR reports that almond farmers are also using pollen and nectar substitutes to get bees to start repopulating their hive as early as January, which is not the normal season for these activities. Bees are regularly shipped across the country to almond fields, where they're continually exposed to stimulants until almonds are ready to grow later in the summer. "We've had to bend the natural behavior of honeybees around almonds," Charley Nye, a head bee researcher at the University of California, Davis, told NPR.
In the wake of the new annual loss report, NPR reports that both environmentalists and farmers are looking into how they can minimize the amount of bees needed to successfully pollinate crops like almond trees. Current practices and standards involving bees were "set many, many, many years ago," Bob Curtis, a pollination consultant with the Almond Board of California, told NPR. He said that his organization is commissioning new studies to determine if the number of colonies used in almond production could be adjusted, which would ease pressure on beekeepers to keep up with an insatiable demand for bees.