How our appetite for industrial-farmed almonds creates an orgy of sickly, exhausted bees. And why that's a really bad thing
In February and early March, millions of bees make a forced nighttime migration to California’s Central Valley, where they gorge themselves on nectar and spread the sexual dust of almond blossoms between trees. It’s necessary for the lucrative almond crop. And bees from all over—from Maine and Florida—converge in one place for the first big orgiastic feast of the season. Michael Pollan dubbed it a “bee bordello.” When sick or exhausted bees travel they accelerate the risk of spreading mites and viruses like apiary STDs in the stressful, epidemiological risky squalor of large-scale farming.
The concentration of bees—first in the almond groves, then on the nation’s apple orchards and blueberry barrens—appears to be a contributing factor in Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees can’t live in a single area all year because the almond crop only flowers once, and this monoculture, or lack of plant diversity, means they have to travel if they want to eat for the rest of the year. And on some of these stops, growers subject bees to a chemical warfare of herbicides and pesticides, which has been singled out as the primary factor in honeybee decline.
Still, it’s hard for scientists to pinpoint just one cause and often the missing part of the picture is the biggest part. Over the same period of time that domestic honeybee colonies dwindled and wild pollinators declined, the untold part of the story is that the total number of bees worldwide increased. So the problem, Nathaneal Johnson wrote in an excellent piece in Conservation, is that “the production of pollinator-dependent crops has quadrupled.” In other words, a 40 percent increase in the world’s bees mean far less when there’s also a 400 percent increase in flowering plants that need those same bees to produce fruit.
This may help explain why bees are so valuable. And the next time you look around the supermarket, consider how the demand for luxury crops like almonds, watermelon, cashews, and chocolate has thrown the ecological balance of bees into question. Whether or not they’re from an organic orchard that didn’t spray neonicotinoids, when you reach for a bag of almonds, nine times out of ten they came from California, and, remember, the bee bordello is only the first stop of their national feeding frenzy that brings you luxurious nuts and fruits all year round.