The California drought is causing a huge disturbance in the central valley. The resulting issues are complex and difficult to solve. One issue surrounding the drought is almond pollination.
Every season, farmers spend thousands of dollars to hire beekeepers to bring in hives to pollinate their fields. This process is essential for most fruit and vegetable production because the scale is so large that the plants cannot all be pollinated by wild pollinators alone. Because the drought is causing the vegetation in California to die off, beekeepers are forced to keep their hives in midwestern states like North Dakota rather than California for most of the year where their bees can feed on the wildflowers that flourish there. During the pollination period, farmers hire the beekeepers to truck their hives all the way to the central valley for a short time. This process is not good for the bees and they become stressed out and less productive. Beekeepers are having to charge more and more to rent out their hives because it is difficult to keep the hives going and therefor they can’t produce honey for an additional income.
Figure 1. This shows the increase in pollination rental fees in Almond Farming. Taken from a presentation from Chris Heintz at the Growing Advantage Almond Conference
One of California’s biggest agricultural industries, almonds, have risen to the top of the economy because of an increase in the world price of the healthy and versatile nut. Almond farmers are wealthy and their crop demands huge inputs of water and pollination. Unlike other farmers in the central valley, they can afford to pay for water and pollination. This forces beekeepers to rent their hives almost exclusively to the almond farmers because they have to make a living. When bees are stressed and don’t have a diverse diet, they struggle to be productive and keep the colony healthy. But because the almond farmers can pay the beekeepers income, the keepers don’t focus on the health of the colony. The drought should cause almond farmers switch to a more drought resistant crop but because they are so wealthy they continue to take water away from other farmers and add the the problems of the drought.
Figure 2. This graphic shows the complex challenges facing honey bees. Taken from a presentation from Chris Heintz at the Growing Advantage Almond Conference
All these issues illustrate the problems with capitalism and our food system. Bees are one of the most important animals in terms of ecosystem services and food security. And almonds are a crop that happen to be in high demand right now. We need to switch our economic values and agricultural strategies if we want to continue to benefit from these valuable pollinators.