Just when we all thought we were doing things right by switching out cows milk for that of almonds, da daaa dummm. Wrong again. Turns out we’re basically murdering bees by the billions, all in our pursuit of a perfect latte.
Let me go back a bit.
On December 8 of last year, the Guardian published a particularly alarming new report that linked almond milk farming to the wiping out of billions of bees used to pollinate almonds. According to the report, during the US winter of 2018/2019 alone more than 50 billion bees were reportedly wiped out – more than six times the world’s human population, if that hits home harder. Why? Because to grow almonds at the rate demanded by millenials thirst for the non-dairy alternative, the global almond growing industry must keep its bees in monocultures, with land dedicated to just one type of crop – almonds. This of course limits the farming bees’ access to diverse plants and therefore their capacity to pollinate widely, which has ongoing implications for us as humans (one in every three mouthfuls of food we eat is thanks to bee pollination), but also for bee populations: it kills them. It’s not only the lack of diverse plants they have access too that is hurting them; they are also continuously coming into contact with almond crops which are doused in potentially bee-killing pesticides. Farmers are also bringing them out of their hives during winter earlier than they usually would, which many environmentalists argue is killing them out of pure exhaustion. Another reason why bee deaths related to the agricultural industry have recently equated to more than a third of commercial bee colonies in the U.S.
In California, where 82 percent of the entire world’s almond supply is produced and where commercial beekeepers have now swapped honeymaking for almond pollination, bees are also clustered together on farms far closer than is considered safe with respect to the spreading of bee sickness. The area’s $11 billion almond industry is growing – and has been growing – at an extraordinary rate. Between 2000 and 2018, the area occupied with almond orchards in California more than doubled, in order to produce the one million tonnes of almonds sold annually to nut-thirsty consumers worldwide.
It’s not just our desperate desire to avoid “oh-so-yesterday” cows milk that is responsible for declining bee populations. Our growing obsession with eating almonds is commensurate with nutritional advice and dieticians who are advising us that “seven almonds – no more no less – a day is key to optimum health”, and this too is exacerbating the problem. Since when were peanuts considered the devil? Eating them would likely keep more bees alive, is my guess.
Back to the bees.
The bees are dying. Commercial beekeepers are struggling. Even those loosely involved in the industry – sellers of beekeeping supplies, for example – are feeling the ripple effects of the gradually declining number of bee populations in the U.S.
Patrick Pynes, an organic beekeeper who teaches environmental studies at Northern Arizona University, told the Guardian as part of the report, “The bees in the almond groves are being exploited and disrespected. They are in severe decline because our human relationship to them has become so destructive.”
Has it really come to this? Has our desire for something milk-ish to go with our cereal and morning coffee become so overwhelming we are willing to jeopardize future life on planet earth?
The good news is that slowly, the industry is recognising what is happening and is taking measures to prevent further population decline. The California Almond Board recently released new Best Management Practices to help make orchards safer for bees, and has invested $1.6 million since 1995 on research related to honey bee health. New beekeeper-grower agreements focus on being more open about pesticide use, as well as making sure there are food sources available for bees nearby to crops once almond trees have stopped blooming. But is it enough?
Interestingly, the issue is now being skewed to target “do-gooder vegans” in condemnation of their lack of consideration of bees. Notorious anti-vegan broadcaster Piers Morgan tweeted that “the mass slaughter of billions of bees is on YOU vegans [and] vegetarians”, saying that “Your ‘animal ethics’ don’t extend to the little guys”.
The Good Morning Britain host raged on air about the issue, saying “They only care about the big animals but these little guys they are animals too. All insects are animals. A bee, billions of those little things are killed every year so that these vegans and vegetarians can have their avocados and almonds flown on jets”.
What will the impact be on the U.S. bee-keeping industry in the long run? Some are saying this could be it – the end of the industry, the end of the bees, the end of the world as we know it.