Bees set to suffer more losses that will really disappoint people who love almonds

If one of your favorite foods to snack on is almonds, you’ll want to get on board with saving the bees because bee losses are so bad that almond production is about to take a hit.

Walking through an almond orchard in California at springtime, one would usually hear the buzzing of thousands of bees hard at work pollinating row after row of almond trees that produce 2.5 billion pounds of the nuts in a single season.

Without bees, that number would plummet to rock bottom because almond trees require pollination to produce the nuts.

Every year, almond growers put in calls across the country seeking every bee colony they can find to put into service, resulting in millions of bees being trucked in from multiple states to get the job done.

But after this past winter, almond growers are panicking along with beekeepers who are discovering more and more of their colonies have been wiped out. Beekeepers certainly expect die-off in the winter, but only a few percent. However, many beekeepers have lost up to 80 percent of their colonies, a disaster for the bees, their owners, and the almond growers.

According to the Huffington Post, several threats to the pollinators are to blame, but the top threat is the varroa mite.

The threat to the bees is multifaceted and existential. The varroa mite, an invasive species of external parasite that arrived in Florida in the 1980s, literally sucks the life out of bees and their brood. Herbicides and habitat loss have destroyed the bees’ forage. An array of pesticides, including dicamba and clothianidin, have been found to damage the bees’ health in a variety of ways, weakening their immune systems, for instance, and slowing their reproductive rate.

“It’s a very lethal parasite on honey bees,” Oregon State University bee expert Ramesh Sagili told NPR. “It causes significant damage not only to the bee, but to the entire colony. A colony might be decimated in months if this varroa mite isn’t taken care of.”

Of course, pesticides are also a major factor. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency just banned 12 bee-killing chemicals this year after a long court battle forced the company that produces to poison to pull the products off the market.

All around the world, bees have been dying off because of pesticide use and climate change, resulting in a population drop that has scientists sounding the alarm because bees are responsible for pollinating up to one-third of the food supply. If the bees die, millions of people would starve.

And the kill shot could be as simple as a spout of bad winter weather.

“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” former U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Jeff Pettis, who worked in the Bee Research Laboratory, said. “It used to be that we only dealt with operations that managed at least a thousand to 3,000 hives. Now people are pulling bees from smaller and smaller operators. They’re pulling bees literally out of people’s backyards and putting them on trucks to pollinate almonds. And while we used to only move bees from west of the Mississippi River, now we go all the way to Florida and New York state.”

It’s an unfolding disaster that needs immediate action to correct before it’s too late, but the federal government is reluctant to ban chemicals that kill bees, and as climate change worsens, weather extremes are going to increase, putting bees at serious risk.

That’s not to say that scientists are not working on solutions.

Researchers are trying to breed a varroa resistant bee, and the almond growers are also taking steps to help our pollinator friends out by reducing their use of pesticides and providing better forage sources for them to feed on to get ready for almond season. Growers are also looking at a strategy that requires less bees for pollination, which would mean many colonies would not be so stressed and can have a break.

However, this is an issue that is not going to go away and governments need to step in and treat it seriously like all of our lives depend on it. Because they do.

Our food supply hangs in the balance. One really bad winter or a mass die-off because of a pesticide that should have been banned could be enough to irreversibly cripple bee populations, and that would be a global catastrophe, not just because most of the world’s almonds come from California, but because most of our food producing plants depend on bees. If we are not more attentive, our stomachs are going to wish we had been when we had the chance.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.
 

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