On a cool January day in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Steve Ellis culled his sick bees. The only sounds were their steady buzz and the chuffing of the smoker he used to keep them calm as he opened the hives, one by one, to see how many had survived. The painful chore has become an annual ritual for Ellis, and, hardened now like a medic on the front lines, he crowned another box with a big rock to mark it.
“This one is G.A.D.,” he said. “Good as dead.”
Ellis, of Barrett, Minn., is one of some 1,300 commercial beekeepers from across the United States who migrate to California each year, along with nearly 2 million hives, for the single largest pollination event in the world. Below him in the sprawling valley, nearly 1,400 square miles of almond trees — three-fourths of the global supply — were ready to burst out into a frothy sea of pink and white. To grow into a nut, every single blossom would need at least one American honeybee.
Ever since the ominous phrase “colony collapse disorder” first surfaced in 2006, scientists have struggled to explain the mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees. But here in America’s food basket the escalating stakes are laid out as clearly as the almond trees that march in perfect rows up to the horizon.
Modern farm economics have created an enormously productive system of genetically engineered, chemically dependent agriculture. But it relies on just one domesticated insect to deliver a third of the food on our plate.
And that insect is dying, a victim of the very food system that has come to depend on it.
A rush of recent research points to a complex triangle of causes: pervasive pesticides, a flowerless rural landscape dominated by cash crops, and the spread of parasites and diseases. Together they inflict enormous damage on the honeybees that crisscross the country each spring and summer, like migrant laborers, to pollinate everything from almonds in California to apples in Maine.
In the past several decades, the number of crops that depend on bees for pollination has quadrupled, even as the number of hives available to pollinate them has dropped by half. Every winter, beekeepers on average continue to lose a fourth to a third of their hives, raising fears that the gradual decline of these remarkably resilient insects will soon limit the production of foods that Americans now take for granted.
Most consumers are insulated from the threat — as long as the aisles of America’s grocery stores are resplendent with apples, lemons, coffee, cocoa, peanuts, grapes, onions, cucumbers and watermelons. But not Ellis and his sometimes partner Jeff Anderson, a third-generation beekeeper from Eagle Bend, Minn., whose family has made the annual trek to and from the California almond bloom since 1961.
For them, catastrophe could be just one harvest away.