Why California Is in Desperate Need of Bees

The state’s $3.8 billion almond industry may take a huge hit due to colony collapse disorder.

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Love isn’t the only thing blooming around Valentine’s Day. So are California’s 800,000 acres of almond blossoms. But scientists warn there may simply not be enough honey bees available to pollinate this year’s crop, which prompts an ominous question: “Is 2013 the year colony collapse disorder (CCD) begins to impact our food supply?

Mysterious and worrisome bee losses have been on the radar since 2006, but this winter was especially hard on hives, and some experts, like UC Davis entomologist Eric Mussen, predict 2013 could end up as one of the worst honey production years on record. That’s bad news for almond growers, who rely heavily on bees to pollinate the nut trees, and the state’s ag-economy. Almonds are California’s second largest cash crop (behind dairy) and the state’s largest export crop, worth an estimated $3.8 billion.

This is big business. According to Scientific Beekeeping, over a million out-of-state bee hives arrive by pickup truck and semi-trailers to work California’s almond orchards, outnumbering local hives two to one, before leaving to pollinate a rotation of flowering crops in other parts of the country.

So just how bad could the season be? Pretty bad. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says beekeepers have been losing approximately 30 percent of their honey bees each year. But word of hive losses in the 70-90 percent range are being reported this winter—an unsustainable trend for the nation’s commercial beekeepers, and a worrying decline for fruit and vegetable producers, who rely heavily on the tiny workers. For commercial beekeeper Jeff Anderson, whose bees pollinate crops in California and Minnesota, the declines are jaw dropping.

“My operation started last spring with a high count of 3,150 hives. Today I have 992 alive, most in severely weakened condition,” he says.

The nation’s almond crop won’t be the only food impacted.

“Bees pollinate over 95 different types of fruits and vegetables, with almonds being the most prolific,” Paul Towers, spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Network, tells TakePart. “What happens in the almond crop spells good news or bad news for other crops. There’s a ripple effect as commercial bees get moved from almonds to blueberries to cranberries and pumpkins.”

While there’s still no scientifically definitive cause for CCD (some suggest weather, parasites and disease), the finger is increasingly being pointed at a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids—including clothiandin, thiamethoxam imidicloprid and sulfoxaflor—currently under consideration at the Environmental Protection Agency. As we told you last year, scientists have linked neonicotinoids use on crops to sudden die-offs of honeybees.

The European Commission, on the other hand, recently recommended a two-year suspension of three neonicotinoid insecticides beginning July 1. The U.S. has no such policy, but PAN, along with the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides and 25 beekeepers filed an emergency legal petition with the EPA to halt use of clothianidin until further studies have been done. The petition was denied.

Similar stories on TakePart:

• Colony Collapse Disorder: New Study Says Pesticides Are Killing Off Honeybees

• At Last, an Answer to the Honey Bee Die-Offs?

• Honey Fraud: Do You Know Where Your Sweet Stuff Is Coming From?

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