Looming crisis for almond industry, as bee census records highest winter losses yet

There would be no almond industry without honeybees, and honeybees are struggling mightily to keep pace with the booming almond business, as FERN’s latest story, published with HuffPost, explains. The latest bit of bad news for bees came Wednesday, with the release of an annual survey of beekeepers that recorded winter losses of nearly 38 percent, the highest winter loss rate since the survey began 13 years ago.

The honeybee, writes Paige Embry, is “so far is the only commercially managed pollinator available in sufficient numbers to work California’s almond fields.” And those fields, which spread across 1.4 million acres of the Central Valley and are expanding every year, already require the services of some 80 percent of all the honeybees in the country.

Honeybee colonies, on the other hand, have been dying at rates that have ranged between 33 percent and 45 percent annually. The new survey from the Bee Informed Partnership, for the year ended March 31, found annual losses to be 41 percent, in addition to the winter losses of 38 percent.

“The threat to the bees is multifaceted and existential,” writes Embry. “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.”

Charley Nye, who runs the bee research operation at the University of California, Davis, sums up the problem this way: “As the almond acres grow, the demand for colonies seems to be outpacing the number of colonies that exist.”