Bee Aware About Almonds
Most people love the crunchy flavor of almonds and we have found ways to work them into every meal of the day. We eat them in breakfast cereals, sprinkled over ice cream, in nut milk as a dairy alternative, in marzipan, nougat, pastries, cookies, cakes, and other sweets and desserts.
Almonds are packed with nutrients. A one-ounce serving contains 76 mg of both magnesium and calcium, and provides 6 grams of protein, 9 grams of healthy fat, 3 ½ grams of fiber, as well as 37% of the RDI of vitamin E, 32% of the RDI of manganese, and a decent amount of copper, vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and phosphorus. And almonds are loaded with antioxidants. Almonds are a healthy snack and have become a leading plant-based alternative to cow’s milk, so it’s no surprise that demand continues to skyrocket. An average American eats about two pounds of almonds a year – more than people in any other country.
You may have heard that nuts take an incredible amount of water to grow and that’s true. It takes a little over a gallon of water to produce one almond! The water usage alone has caused many environmentally minded people to reduce or change their nut consumption, but do you know how almond production is facilitating the death of bees?
Almond trees depend on bees for pollination. No crop in the United States requires more bees to pollinate than almonds. In California, where the majority of U.S. almonds are grown, the almond fields cover almost a million acres – roughly the size of the state of Delaware. This $11 billion dollar industry produces 2.3 billion pounds of almonds every year and the amount of honey bees needed for pollination is massive. For an average rental fee of $200/hive and usually two hives per acre, breeding millions of honey bees to service almond fields can be very profitable — but those honey bees are dying at unprecedented levels.
Two-thirds of the commercial pollinator honey bees in the United States spend up to a month in California’s Central Valley, exposed to what the World Health Organization called the worst air pollution in the country, mostly due to pesticides and agricultural chemicals. As almond milk sales have exploded to over $1.2 billion a year, the growing demand for almonds and commercial pollination is putting all bees at risk, not just the honey bees.
Bee Aware About Wild Bees
Commercial pollinator bees are very different from the wild bees we depend on for most of our food and flower pollination. Commercial pollinators are European honey bees, which are not native to the U.S. These honey bees were imported by early settlers for commercial honey production and pollination services. The nearly 4,000 species of native, wild bees in North America are mostly solitary and do not produce honey, or enough honey for humans to eat. These wild bees provide the bulk of overall pollination work.
When cheap imported honey started affecting the livelihoods of professional beekeepers, many started renting out their bees for crop pollination. Billions of honey bees are bred every year in order to service the 18,000 square miles of almond fields in California, but so many die in the process that a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, Nathan Donley, said, “It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”
So why is there so much emphasis on honey bees? Because honeybees are considered a commodity with real dollar value and wild bees are not. But honey bee numbers can be inflated through commercial breeding. So breeding 50,000,000 more honey bees a year doesn’t mean bee populations are recovering, it just means that honey bee breeders are producing more to compensate for and offset the devastating annual honey bee deaths.
The focus on honey bee populations is a distraction from the damage being done to wild bee populations which cannot be commercially bred to replenish their dwindling numbers. Bumble bee populations, for example, have declined by 90% in the last 2 decades and have already disappeared from 8 states!
When we think of bees, most people imagine honey bee hives filled with delicious honey. We all love seeing them doting on beautiful flowers and wiggling their happy little bee bottoms as they dig into a juicy pile of pollen. But honey bees are just one species of bee, and our many species of native wild bees must not be forgotten.
“It’s important to remember that ‘bee’ doesn’t just mean honey bees, even though honey bees are the most cultivated species. Our society’s footprint impacts wild bees as well, which provide ecosystem services we depend on,” said biologist Eduardo Zattara, lead author of a 2020 study finding a sharp decline in global wild bee species.
So when we talk about bee declines, it’s more important to focus on wild bee species that are indispensable for an overall healthy ecosystem. Wild bees’ declining numbers are not replaced through commercial breeding. This lack of awareness spells a coming disaster for not only native wild bees, but also for humans.
Why Are the Bees Dying?
You have probably heard that pesticide exposure can kill or harm bees, including weakening their immune systems and making them more susceptible to diseases and parasites. Pesticides are a top cause of bee death and injury. Disease, habitat loss due to development and monocrop farming, and climate disruptions are speeding things along.
But what you might not know is how almond production specifically contributes to the decline of native bee populations that provide the bulk of pollination across the country.
Conventional almonds are grown with more pesticides than any other food crop in the U.S. California’s public pesticide records show that almonds are grown with bee-toxic pesticides including glyphosate, paraquat, imidacloprid, methoxyfenozide and others.
For example, a recent study published in the journal Science found glyphosate herbicide damages bumble bee colonies.
A study published in the journal PLOS One found that paraquat herbicide adversely affects honey bee larvae at low levels.
Another study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found imidacloprid, the most widely used neonicotinoid insecticide, impairs bee learning and memory.
Methoxyfenozide, a widely used insecticide in almond orchards, was found to disrupt bee colony activity in a study published in the journal PLOS One.
These are just a handful of the overwhelming number of studies showing the harms of pesticides to all bees.
The massive amount of pesticides applied to almonds doesn’t only affect commercial pollinators. Wild bees are also exposed in several ways. Wild bees may fly into an orchard following a pesticide application or be exposed through contaminated water running off the orchard. Another problem is that the pesticides used in the almond fields don’t stay in the almond fields. Pesticides can drift beyond the orchards, killing native wild bees and wild plants that they rely on for food.
Spread of Disease
Most of us know that pesticide-laced, genetically engineered high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad for human health. But did you know that HFCS is also bad for bees and that conventional apiaries feed their honey bees HFCS? Since the 1970s, conventional beekeepers take their hives’ most nutritious food, their own honey, and replace it with HFCS.
Honey bees on a diet of HFCS have weakened immune systems and are unable to detoxify toxins such as the pesticides they’re exposed to in conventional almond orchards. These weakened honey bees are also highly susceptible to viruses such as deformed wing virus, sacbrood virus, and paralysis viruses.
The millions of honey bees used to pollinate almond orchards can travel up to three miles from their hives and the orchards, not only competing with native wild bees for forage, but also spreading disease to native bee populations.
Habitat loss due to human development, such as for housing, malls, parking lots, and monocrop farming is taking a toll on wild bee populations. A study published in Oxford Academic found that habitat loss and habitat fragmentation resulted in a decline of wild bee abundance and pollination services.
Shelter and food for bees are lost. Places where bees have been traveling for generations based on information passed on from their queen are no longer habitable by the bees, or have been replaced with crop land doused with bee-toxic pesticides. Most native bees are solitary and live in little cavities, or nest in crevices and under tiny hollows on the ground — they rely on their natural environment to survive. When it’s gone, where can they go?
Conventional almond orchards, reliant on petroleum-based synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and equipment running on petrofuels, contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate disruptions.
When plants bloom and flower earlier than usual due to irregular and shifting temperatures, the bees and other pollinators may not be ready or available to feed on that pollen. Even small inconsistencies in this timing can affect bees’ health, not to mention plant pollination.
Warmer environments have been correlated with an increase in disease, fungus, and parasites like Nosema ceranae and Varroa mites that already adversely affect bee populations. These types of infections and diseases have led to a noticeable decline in overall bee populations in the last decade.
The changing climate causes more extreme variations in weather… more droughts, floods, and fires. Bees have less time to adapt to these weather events and if their habitats are destroyed, they are less able to recover from periods of extreme weather.
We can see that bees are in trouble, and the growing demand for conventional almonds and almond milk isn’t doing them any good.
Here Are Some Things That You Can Do to Help The Bees:
- Help to pass national legislation like PACTPA, which will ban some bee-toxic pesticides used in almond orchards. Sign our petition to Congress now!
- Buy certified organic foods and those with the Bee Better Certified seal, which require growers to dedicate part of their farms to bee-beneficial habitat. Urge your favorite food brands to get Bee Better Certified.
- Opt for plant-based milk products that are more sustainable and made from less water-intensive ingredients, like organic oat (conventional oats contain high levels of glyphosate), organic hemp, or organic hazelnut milks which have lighter carbon footprints and do not require insect pollination.
- Buy almonds from small organic farms who treat their bees right. Check out our favorite almonds from our affiliate, Braga Organic Farms! These are the only almonds our pesticide-sensitive staffers buy. We love and trust Braga and it’s important to support small organic farmers. And you can make your own almond milk without any unnecessary additives.
- Plant food and forage for native bees. Check out this awesome Pollinator-Friendly Native Plant List to look up what kinds of native plants you can grow in your state. If you’re not sure where to start, bees love organic sunflowers. A recent study found that sunflowers help bees by strengthening their immune system.
- Spread the word! Share our blog about bees and almonds with your friends and family!
WATCH RELATED PODCAST: Fork The System Podcast Episode 001 Glyphosate & Roundup: Poison In Our Daily Bread