Honeybees at a Crossroads

Drought, pesticides, diseases—it’s not a good time to be a bee.

Eric Holthaus and his bees, in better times.

Photo by Jennifer Atchison

We’ve all heard the story by now. Bees are dying, and a tangled mix of toxic pesticides, monocrop agriculture, and climate change are probably to blame. After the coming Beepocalypse, we’ll have to pollinate our food crops by hand, or so the thinking goes.

The story is much more complex than that. Still, it seems like bees need all the help they can get, so last year I decided to give beekeeping a try myself. In my first year, I got stung only twice. I consider that a great accomplishment.

I had a lot of fun showing off my bees whenever we had visitors. I’d put on my rain jacket, a pair of old batting gloves, and a makeshift veil—a getup that substituted for a proper bee suit—light my smoker, and wave trays of fastidious insects in my guests’ faces. “See, those tiny, ricelike specks at the bottom of the cell are the eggs. Hey, there’s the queen!” Predictably, they recoiled in fear—but even at a safe distance, their eyes never left the bees. Bees are fascinating.

We started with just one hive in our backyard last spring, seeded by a 3-pound “package” of bees that our supplier told us was sourced from Texas. Our bees seemed healthy enough last fall. They made about 40 pounds of honey, though that wasn’t enough extra for us to harvest any for ourselves. It was a cool, wet summer, and other beekeepers in this part of Wisconsin reported similar problems. I did sneak a taste of some honey when I accidentally scraped open a few cells as I was preparing the hive for winter—it was delicious.

Through the long, hard Wisconsin winter, I occasionally shoved the mound of snow higher around the hive, as instructed by a local mentor, to help with insulation. Last month, as temperatures rose, I finally got up the nerve to check in on them. They were all dead.

I’m not alone. It’s an extraordinarily difficult time to be a beekeeper. Last week the New York Times and others reported that colony die-offs spiked again during the just-completed season, with 42.1 percent losses nationwide. That makes it among the worst years on record. Commercial beekeepers, the migratory insect wranglers whose flocks are essential to pollinating some of the nation’s most valuable crops, were hit especially hard.

One reason is the drought. Due to abnormally warm temperatures, the almond bloom came early this year in California, two weeks ahead of schedule, and the Oregon pear bloom was perhaps the earliest on record, adding stress to bees that were transported between the two with little break. There is also a shortage of nectar in the blossoms of native plants, which is cutting into honey production and forcing beekeepers to feed their bees with sugar water. That’s driven honey prices to all-time highs nationwide and prompted a fourfold increase in the price almond growers are paying to rent beehives during pollination.

There’s no way to separate the plight of the honeybee from California’s nut boom. California almond growers need two things to thrive: water and honeybees. This year both are in short supply.

I first wrote about almonds’ huge water footprint last year. This year, in consultation with the Almond Board of California, I refined my numbers. Though California’s vast almond plantations use a couple of Los Angeleses’ worth of water each year, they’re not the worst agricultural water guzzler in the state. (That title goes to alfalfa grown as animal feed for export and for California dairies.)

The annual California almond pollination is a staggering spectacle. It’s now the single biggest pollination event on earth: Thirty billion bees, essentially the entire nation’s commercial supply, are trucked in during a narrow two-to-three-week window. And it doesn’t stop there. After wintering in Florida or Texas, the average commercial beekeeper takes hives to California in February, northward to Oregon and Washington for pears and apples in March, then to the cranberry bogs of Wisconsin or the clover fields of North Dakota during the summer months, before heading back south when the weather turns cold. All that mingling has helped hasten the spread of diseases and parasites, like varroa mites.

But the dire headlines frequently leave out important trends: The total population of honeybees in the U.S. has leveled off, as beekeepers, for now, have been able to recover from sharp seasonal losses whenever they’ve occurred. Globally, populations are actually rising. Honeybees are not going to go extinct anytime soon.

But in an era of industrialized monoculture, farmers have increasingly turned to pesticides to squeeze out extra yields. Research is becoming clearer that this decision has come at a staggering cost to honeybees. And almond growers, due to their unique dependence on bees, may be at least partially to blame—though not intentionally, of course. To beekeepers, the most worrying insecticides are those in the neonicotinoid family, a chemical relative of nicotine. Neonicotinoids are a neurotoxin to bees, and research published recently shows that they may interfere with bees’ ability to reproduce adequately. One beekeeper I spoke with said that if traditional pesticides are firecrackers, neonicotinoids are nuclear weapons.

This week the White House announced an initiative to protect pollinator health, with a goal of limiting winter honeybee losses to no more than 15 percent each year within 10 years—a much easier blow to build back from. The initiative includes a plan for the Environmental Protection Agency to “re-evaluate the neonicotinoid family of pesticides” by 2017. The EPA has previously said it is unlikely to approve new outdoor uses for neonicotinoids. The family of pesticides has been banned in Europe since 2013.

In the meantime, to say the use of neonicotinoids is widespread would be a vast understatement. When I contacted almond industry representatives for this article, they pointed me toward an initiative in place this season to promote best management practices on pesticide application, including guidelines to limit the use of pesticides during the bloom period when bees are most active. But Randall Langston, a commercial beekeeper from Florida who brings his bees to California each year, hadn’t yet heard of the initiative from the Almond Board. And he brings a lot of bees there—eight or nine truckloads this year:

This year he wasn’t happy with the health of his bees when they returned from California. “The drought has definitely played a huge role,” he told me. But his No. 1 concern is still pesticides.

“Every time we expose our bees to any kind of pollination program, [we’re] always putting [our] bees in the line of fire to be sprayed with who knows what,” Langston said.

Despite the risk of continued losses, Langston said he’d continue to send his bees to California until the risk outweighed the profit. If, some year, his bees are so weak that they aren’t able to produce honey once they get home, “then it’s over. … I’m not sending them out there on a death run.”

As the economics of the industry has changed—the short almond pollination period now often fetches half of a commercial beekeeper’s annual income—Langston has changed his beekeeping philosophy from producing honey to just recouping losses and rebuilding his hive population each summer. But that trend can’t continue forever, he said. “I think everybody in general, as beekeepers, are starting to really weigh their thoughts on whether or not they’re going to continue to go to California.”

As for me, I’m planning on restarting my micro-scale beekeeping operation next spring in Colorado, hopefully with better weather.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.