Bees are essential to the functioning of America’s titanic almond industry – and billions are dying in the process It’s like sending bees to war.

Dennis Arp was feeling optimistic last summer, which is unusual for a beekeeper these days.

Thanks to a record wet spring, his hundreds of hives, scattered across the central Arizona desert, produced a bounty of honey. Arp would have plenty to sell in stores, but more importantly, the bumper harvest would strengthen his bees for their biggest task of the coming year.

Like most commercial beekeepers in the US, at least half of Arp’s revenue now comes from pollinating almonds. Selling honey is far less lucrative than renting out his colonies to mega-farms in California’s fertile Central Valley, home to 80{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of the world’s almond supply.

But as winter approached, with Arp just months away from taking his hives to California, his bees started getting sick. By October, 150 of Arp’s hives had been wiped out by mites, 12{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of his inventory in just a few months. “My yard is currently filled with stacks of empty bee boxes that used to contain healthy hives,” he says.

This shouldn’t be happening to someone like Arp, a beekeeper with decades of experience. But his story is not unique. Commercial beekeepers who send their hives to the almond farms are seeing their bees die in record numbers, and nothing they do seems to stop the decline.

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 mechanisation of one of nature’s most delicate natural processes.

Environmental advocates argue that the huge, commercially driven proliferation of the European honeybees used on almond farms is itself undermining the ecosystem for all bees. Honeybees out-compete diverse native bee species for forage, and threaten the endangered species that are already struggling to survive climate change. Environmentalists argue a better solution is to transform the way large-scale agriculture is carried out in the US.

Like all bees, honeybees thrive in a biodiverse landscape. But California’s almond industry places them in a monoculture where growers expect the bees to be predictably productive year after year.

Commercial honeybees are considered livestock by the US Department of Agriculture because of the creature’s vital role in food production. But no other class of livestock comes close to the scorched-earth circumstances that commercial honeybees face. More bees die every year in the US than all other fish and animals raised for slaughter combined.

“It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”

“The high mortality rate creates a sad business model for beekeepers,” says Nate Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”

Nuts for almonds

California’s $11bn (£8.4bn) almond industry has grown at an extraordinary rate. In 2000, almond orchards occupied 500,000 acres. By 2018 that had more than doubled – almond groves in the Central Valley now blanket an area the size of Delaware, producing 2.3bn lb (1m tonnes) of almonds annually sold around the world.

The average American eats 2lb (900g) of almonds every year, more than in any other country. US almond milk sales have grown 250{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} over the past five years to reach $1.2bn, over four times that of any other plant-based milk, according to a 2018 Nielsen report.

“We don’t see a cap on growth at this point, especially with the incredible versatility of almonds in foods,” says Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, a not-for-profit advocacy organisation representing the majority of farmers. But these enormous orchards can’t function without bees.

It wasn’t that long ago that beekeeping was mostly a boutique pursuit of the gentleman apiarist. When European immigrants introduced their own version of agriculture to North America, they also imported the art of beekeeping, along with boxes of Apis mellifera, the domesticated European honeybee. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, beekeepers earned a modest living selling beeswax and honey. But in the late 20th century there was a titanic shift, exemplified by the career of Dennis Arp.

Arp, 67, got into beekeeping nearly four decades ago when he established his Mountain Top Honey company in Flagstaff, Arizona. A commanding presence with biceps toned from hoisting heavy bee boxes, Arp is the sort of diligent beekeeper who spends his days driving between apiary sites, and his nights studying online forums, reading articles on the latest mite treatment.

When cheap imported honey began cutting into Arp’s profits in the 1980s, he decided to send some of his hives with a beekeeper friend to pollinate almonds in California. A decade later he struck up a deal of his own with an almond grower in California’s Kern county. With that strategic move, Arp joined the growing ranks of migratory beekeepers in the US who still sell honey but mostly travel the country from one pollination site to the next with stacks of bee boxes in tow.

In the early 1980s, when Arp was just selling honey, he would lose about 5{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of his hives per year to disease or weather conditions. Around 2000, Arp’s bees started dying in greater numbers.

First, he experienced a nearly 100{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} loss of his hives from an infestation of tracheal mites. Then he had to cope with the intrusion of Africanized “killer” bees. And finally, what he still considers the bane of his business, a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor literally sucked the life out of his bees. The mite feeds on the bee’s plump body, destroying the insect’s immune system and other vital functions. If Arp doesn’t apply regular chemical treatments for the mites, his colonies will die.

Now Arp finds himself in a vicious circle: he is constantly battling to keep enough bees alive to meet the requirements of his almond contract. But if he was not pollinating almonds, maybe his bees would be healthier.

This year Arp’s bees, like more than two-thirds of the United States’ commercial honeybee population, will spend February in the toxic chemical soup of California’s Central Valley, fertilising almonds one blossom at a time.

Pesticides are used for all kinds of crops across the state, but the almond, at 35m lb a year, is doused with greater absolute quantities than any other. One of the most widely applied pesticides is the herbicide glyphosate (AKA Roundup), which is a staple of large-scale almond growers and has been shown to be lethal to bees as well as cause cancer in humans. (The maker, Bayer-owned Monsanto, denies the cancer link when people use Roundup at the prescribed dosage. So far this year three US courts have found in favour of glyphosate users who developed forms of lymphoma; thousands more cases are pending.)

On top of the threat of pesticides, almond pollination is uniquely demanding for bees because colonies are aroused from winter dormancy about one to two months earlier than is natural. The sheer quantity of hives required far exceeds that of other crops – apples, America’s second-largest pollination crop, use only one-tenth the number of bees. And the bees are concentrated in one geographic region at the same time, exponentially increasing the risk of spreading sickness.

“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.”

“Bees are exposed to all kinds of diseases in California,” says Arp. “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.”

The almond business has been good to Arp – last February, for instance, he installed 1,500 of his hives in one grower’s orchard at $200 per hive – so he is reluctant to make a direct connection between the constant health challenges with his bees and the time spent every spring in the almond groves. “The bees like working on the almonds,” says Arp. “But it obviously exposes them to risks.”

Now he routinely loses 30{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} or more of his bees a year, mirroring national statistics. In any other industry, the death of a third of your workforce would cause an international outcry – but this staggering loss is now considered the normal cost of doing business.

“The bees in the almond groves are being exploited and disrespected,” says Patrick Pynes, an organic beekeeper who teaches environmental studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “They are in severe decline because our human relationship to them has become so destructive.”

The high price of growth

When the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder was first identified in 2006, after a record number of honeybees mysteriously disappeared or died outside their hives, it was linked to a variety of factors including loss of habitat and climate change. But the primary culprit was pesticides. Researchers found that a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids was especially lethal to bees.

Last May, the EPA pulled a dozen “neonics” from the market following a successful lawsuit brought by beekeepers and environmental groups.

But there are many chemicals that are not labeled as bee toxic, even though they can make bees sick and weaken their immune systems. While bees may survive the pollination season, they may not last the winter or may take back substances that gradually poison the entire colony.

Those on the almond growers’ side acknowledge there is a huge problem. “The bee mortality rate is too high and is unacceptable,” says the entomologist Bob Curtis, a pollination consultant for the Almond Board of California. “It is only because of the hard work and creativity of beekeepers that [almond growers] have gotten the bees they need.”

The almond board’s “best practice” guidelines encourage beekeepers to spend as little time in California’s Central Valley as possible. Honeybees can travel up to three miles in search of varied forage, so even if the almond grower is doing everything right to protect a pollination investment, the cotton or grape farmer down the road may be spraying bee-toxic chemicals on crops.

Even as almond production has steadily ramped up for decades, the number of commercial hives in the US has remained at a steady 2.7m colonies since the early 2000s. With all the challenges beekeepers face, just maintaining the bare minimum is a struggle.

One coping strategy pursued by the almond industry has been to breed almond varieties that require only one hive per acre to pollinate, instead of two. And last January, a pollinator protection law went into effect in California as part of the state’s “Bee Where” initiative. For this program, beekeepers are required to register the location of their hives with the county’s agricultural commissioner and farmers must notify the commissioner in advance of any plans to spray pesticides.

Even so, the costs beekeepers incur trying to keep their bees alive are constantly rising. Arp has spent approximately $50,000 in the past year buying new hives to compensate for the 35{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} colony loss he experienced last year. He also spends at least $50,000 a year on mite treatments, not to mention other more aggressive measures the industry is taking just to maintain the status quo. These include splitting robust hives in half, introducing mail-order queens to new hives and fattening bees on corn syrup or on simulated pollen substances called “pollen patties”.