Americans spent $1.2 billion on almond milk last year. Sales are two-and-a-half times what they were five years ago. Per capita almond consumption in the U.S. is two pounds per year. Eighty percent of the world’s almonds come from the Central Valley in California. Acreage planted to almonds has doubled since 2000. Giant corporate-owned farms predominate. Almond trees are thirsty and the subterranean aquifers underneath the fertile Central Valley are being sucked dry.
And almonds are killing the bees.
Honeybees are necessary for almond production. Every February, beekeepers set up thousands of hives in the orchards. Bees pollinate the almond trees, blossom by blossom. Pollinating all these almonds takes its toll on the bees.
Overall, the bee population in the U.S. has decreased by forty percent in little over a decade. The causes of so-called Colony Collapse Disorder have not been definitively ascertained, but there are suspects.
It’s even worse in the Central Valley. Honeybees are dying in record numbers there. Beekeepers routinely lose thirty percent of their bees from almond pollination each year.
Beekeepers attribute the high mortality rate to pesticide exposure. Almonds are drenched with more chemicals than any other crop. The predominate chemical used is glyphosate, aka Roundup. The herbicide is deadly to bees. It also causes cancer in humans. (Roundup’s maker, Monsanto — owned since 2016 by the German conglomerate Bayer — says Nuh-Uh!)
Environmentalists and organic beekeepers say a worse villain is industrial agriculture. Honeybees thrive on diversity. Vast acreage of a single crop is not conducive to bees’ health. Almond is the largest crop that requires pollination. (Second is apples, requiring one-tenth the number of hives as almonds.) The concentration of bees in one area greatly increases the spread of disease. As one beekeeper put it, “There can be 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.”
What are the prospects for honey bees? “We don’t see a cap on growth at this point, especially with the incredible versatility of almonds in foods,” says the president and CEO of the Almond Board of California.