Nobody Home

On Alan Wilson’s table at the Oakland Farmers’ Market, row after row of glass honey jars catch the early morning sun that angles down Ninth Street. Some of the honey gleams a reddish brown, some a paler amber, depending on the particular mix of flower species the bees foraged. All of it was produced by Wilson’s colonies, which number a third of what he had last fall, before the infamous bee die-off that afflicted growers around the world. “I’d better get the honey while I can,” one customer remarks.

The flurry of media attention given this winter’s bee losses, now labeled “colony collapse disorder,” has updated the world of bees for a heretofore-clueless public. Our image of honeybees is a lot like our bucolic images of farm animals—and just as far from the brutal truth of today’s corporate agriculture. We picture fields of clover, blossoming orchards, the wildflowers beneath the trees, filled with happy bees industriously gathering nectar and pollen to take back to the hive. As the bees gather pollen, they transfer it from plant to plant, thus assuring cross-pollination.

Fewer people can picture what happens at the hive, where the bees feed the protein-rich pollen to their developing brood. The adults live on honey they make from collected nectar—sipped from the throats of flowers into the bees’ honey stomachs, disgorged at the hive into the hexagonal wax combs made by the bees, fanned by bee wings to evaporate excess moisture until it reaches the perfect syrupy consistency, and then sealed with a wax cap to keep it clean and ready to sustain the colony over the winter. In order to do all this, bees rely on a diverse range of flowers blooming over a wide stretch of the year.

The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a European native, one of very few bee species in the world to store honey in bulk and live fulltime in large colonies (30,000 to 100,000 individuals). It is the only bee with a long history of intensive management by people. For almost all of this time, and continuing today in many parts of the world, the rosy picture of bee life painted above is largely accurate. But when beekeeping meets industrial agriculture, the result is very different. Colony collapse disorder may have many contributing causes, but it comes down to bees hitting the biological limits of our agricultural system. It’s not so much a bee crisis as a pollination crisis. And we may end up calling it agricultural collapse disorder.

It’s a rare beekeeper in the United States who can survive by selling honey. The trade loophole that has flooded this country with low-cost Chinese honey for the past ten years guaranteed that (fortunately for beekeepers, that hole has just been plugged by new federal tariff regulations). The only income remaining has been in pollination services. Alan Wilson’s bees are rented out for almond pollination starting in February. After that they go south to the orange groves, then all the way to North Dakota where they make clover honey. Wilson’s Central Valley location near Merced has little to offer bees over the dry summer months except roadside star thistle and the brief flowering of cantaloupes in August. Nearby agricultural chemicals are a concern, especially the defoliant used on cotton before harvest. Just the drift from the defoliant has taken the paint off Wilson’s hives. Still, this year he plans to keep his bees closer to home where he can manage them more intensively and try to increase their numbers.

Every commercial beekeeper has different arrange-ments, but each involves long-distance trucking and the California almond crop. Almonds are entirely dependent on the seasonal importation of honeybees. Growers can’t get crop insurance coverage unless they have at least two bee colonies per acre at almond blossom time; some growers use up to five colonies per acre for heavier yields. Over 800,000 Central Valley acres are planted in almond trees. As beekeeper Randy Oliver says, it is “monoculture at its absolute worst—they don’t allow one species of weed to grow”: mile after mile of bare soil and almond trees. No native pollinators can survive on this wasted landscape to ease the honeybees’ burden, and nothing lives to sustain bees before or after the almond bloom.

Truckloads of bees begin to arrive as early as November from all over the nation—it takes virtually all of this country’s commercially operated pollination colonies to cover California’s almonds. While the bees roll down the highways, hive entrances boarded up, or wait in Central Valley bee yards for the trees to bloom, they’re fed a mixture of high fructose corn syrup meant to replace nectar, along with soy protein meant to replace pollen. (Some beekeepers, Wilson among them, have switched to beet syrup as a safer though more expensive alternative.) Oliver sums up the patent absurdity: “When bugs from the east coast have to be trucked to California to pollinate an exotic tree because California has no bugs, it’s a pretty whacked-out agricultural system.”

Oliver’s 500 bee colonies—he was lucky, with losses under ten percent—follow a relatively short migratory truck route that takes them from Central Valley almonds to Sierra foothill wildflowers to Nevada alfalfa. He attributes his success to fewer and shorter moves, reliance on pasture forage for much of the year, and avoidance of artificial feeding. “Some of these guys move their bees a dozen times a year,” he says. Popular pollination routes include apples and blueberries, which rely on honeybees for 90 percent of their pollination, peaches (50 percent), and oranges (30 percent). Farmers won’t bother planting squash or melons if they can’t get beehives in place by bloom time. One-third of all US crops depend on honeybee pollination.

It hasn’t been this way for long. Even 30 years ago growers could rely on a combination of native pollinating insects and local honeybees for most crops. In 1970, there were 35 beekeepers in Alan Wilson’s area; now there are two. As farms grew more and more of fewer and fewer crops, using petrochemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, vast tracts of land have gradually approached the reductionist goal of supporting no life at all except the target crop. It’s not just the almonds—every crop is grown this way. That’s why it’s called industrial agriculture, or factory farming.

Bee researchers have been calling bees “the canary in this coal mine,” a different version of the birds and the bees. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein has been popping up all over the Internet: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Einstein never said it, but the instant ubiquity of the sentiment says everything.

Though the media only picked it up this year, bees have actually been in trouble for the past couple of decades. Mites—parasitic insects small enough to use bees as their hosts—jumped from other species to honeybees, another example of collateral damage from global transportation. First tracheal mites in the ’80s, then varroa mites in the ’90s—even before last winter, the world’s honeybee population had declined by half in 30 years.

UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen points out that before the mites arrived, winter losses of five to ten percent of a beekeeper’s colonies were the norm. The mites increased yearly losses to 25 percent by the late ’80s, and now we’re at 40 percent or higher, with some years better than average and others catastrophic. Randy Oliver says, “If we made a list of collapses of the last 20 years, this winter’s would not make the top five.” Last year’s losses were bad for Alan Wilson, but the last four years together have decimated his colonies by over 90 percent. The only beekeepers doing substantially better are the very small percentage practicing non-chemical mite control coupled with little or no trucking or artificial feeding—in other words, labor-intensive vigilance combined with lower pollination income. It’s not a financially viable option for many fulltime beekeepers.

The difference with this winter’s losses is not having an identified cause, and therefore no quick (even if temporary) fix. For tracheal mites, beekeepers developed nontoxic preventive treatments—Alan Wilson successfully doses his bees on a mixture of Crisco, sugar, and peppermint extract. Varroa mites proved trickier, and beekeepers started down the slippery slope of synthetic insecticide use. “Until the mid-’90s nobody dreamed of using chemicals in beehives,” Oliver says. Once they did, the race was on, with insecticide-resistant varroa mites evolving neck-in-neck with the newest chemical treatment. European beekeepers, who have had the varroa mite longer, have pretty much given up on chemicals and use an Integrated Pest Management approach. US beekeepers who go this route find it labor- and attention-intensive, and effective within its parameters (not eradication but healthy bees living with a smaller number of mites). According to Oliver, “We’re just prolonging our agony as long as we continue to use chemical treatments.”

Everyone agrees the honeybee buzzed into the 21st century carrying a heavy load of stress. Colonies were weakened by mites, perhaps by chemicals used to kill the mites, and probably by at least some of the 25 different viruses carried by varroa mites. Add in a fungus, nosema, that’s tolerated by healthy bees but a problem for already weakened hives. Then there’s the stress of long-distance truck travel, longer distances for more bees every year. The small hive beetle, an African native recently found in Florida hives, posed another challenge; aggressive African honeybees attack the beetle, but European bees, bred to be docile, let it overrun the hive.

Cell phone interference has been proposed as a threat to bees, based on reports of a German study showing bees unable to find their way home in the presence of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. This particular theory must be called inconclusive at best, since the study was not designed with enough apicultural knowledge to produce reliable results.

No bee taken from the hive for the first time, as was done in the study, would be able to find its way back, since bees navigate primarily by landmarks, not electromagnetic homing sensors. Their first few excursions are short orientation flights, not blind trips in a box to a release point.

Of all these factors, many beekeepers judge varroa mites the most consistently debilitating. But there’s another weakening influence more obvious and more integral to the larger agricultural dilemma. It’s the stressor Mussen calls the most important of all—bee malnutrition. High-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are not any more nutritious for bees than they are for humans (see Spring 2007), and bees in transit and between pollination jobs often must subsist on nothing but these non-foods. Compounding the problem, we’re talking genetically modified corn and soy, every cell of which contains a bacterial insecticide. Are bees not insects? US studies have indicated that Bt corn pollen does not kill healthy bees or brood reared on it, but a German study showed that Bt pollen led to “significantly stronger decline in the number of bees” in hives already weakened by varroa mites.

We do know that corn pollen in general is poor bee food, high in fiber and low in protein. The Midwest, up until now the country’s best bee forage habitat, this year is being planted much more aggressively to GM corn as a source for ethanol—aggressive meaning planting marginal areas and edges usually left to the asters and goldenrods that are high-quality pollen sources in late summer when bees need to raise the generation that will overwinter. Even when bees are out foraging for real nectar and non-GMO pollen, for much of the year they are likely to be ingesting a monocultured diet due to their use as pollinators for industrial-scale agriculture—nothing but almond, then nothing but apple, then only watermelon. They’re exposed to pesticides used on their forage crops as well. Oh—and one more influence to factor into the equation—very hot weather can damage the protein content of pollen, decreasing its food value for bees. Global warming is kicking our butts from more directions than we can comprehend.

Given these conditions, last winter’s losses can hardly be considered a surprise. Neither can the failure of bee researchers to come up with one specific cause, much less a magic bullet cure. Still, the kind of thinking that got us this far continues. According to Mussen, “the only hope is the USDA Tucson lab” which is working on a liquid feed that bees can eat all year. Randy Oliver calls this the “holy grail” of bee research. The USDA’s proprietary formula, if they come up with one that works, will be patented and licensed to a commercial producer, and the whole agricultural system may manage to lurch along for a few more years, complete with pollinators hauled from Florida to California in time for the almond bloom.

How did all those almonds get pollinated this year, on the heels of beekeepers’ discoveries that half (in some cases up to 90 percent) of their colonies had suddenly gone missing? It wouldn’t have happened without a change in regulations that allowed bees to be imported from Australia. Bee businesses Down Under went into boom mode, sending 100,000 packages of bees to the States. A package is a starter kit of about 10,000 worker bees and a queen, enclosed in a small screened box with a sugar water feeder. The receiving beekeeper shakes the package into a waiting hive, and given proper nectar and pollen resources, within a month a new generation of bees will be expanding the colony.

The Australian influx may be short-lived, as a colony of Indian bees (Apis cerana) was recently discovered living aboard a yacht off Australia. The Indian bee is host to yet another mite that could wreak havoc if it spreads to the European honeybee. Another factor in almond pollination this year was the rental price for a bee colony, which averaged $150, nearly twice what it was last year. This was the first year in which the income beekeepers realized from almond pollination surpassed the income received for the entire US honey crop. There’s talk of opening the Canadian border for next year’s almond season.

To paraphrase Randy Oliver, we’re prolonging our agony by continuing with this profoundly unworkable agricultural system. Suddenly terms like “organic” and “biodiversity” shift from boutique buzzwords to elements of survival. This country has 4,500 species of native insects that are potential pollinators. On the East Coast, where farms are much smaller, more diverse, and broken up by uncultivated land, native insects account for up to 90 percent of crop pollination. Studies done on Costa Rican coffee crops have shown that yields are 20 percent greater within one kilometer of forest remnants. Canadian canola farmers show increased yields by leaving 30 percent of their cropland wild. It’s all about pollination.

Fortunately for us, insects are quick to recolonize formerly dead areas. Hedgerows, windbreaks, wetlands, woodlots—the particulars of restoration agriculture are easy and already known. It’s the big picture that’s harder to shift, from the extractive industrial petrochemical model to the biodiverse ecosystem model. Honeybees have upped the ante, giving us all the motivation we need to change—do we want to continue to eat?

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