No bodies were found; no predators were located.
In my novel The Honey Farm, a woman turns her bee farm into an artists’ residency in order to get through the worst drought the farm has ever seen. While I was researching the book, one of the things that surprised me the most was that pretty much every bee owned by a commercial beekeeper in America will end up having to earn its keep by being hired out for commercial pollinating—a job that kills them in the process.
The most significant crop in America that requires rental bees is almonds. There are about 800,000 acres of almonds in California, and at a rate of 2.5 hives worth of bees per acre, pollinating all of the almond trees requires two million hives—approximately the total national supply. Eighty percent of plants require pollination in order to bear fruit. Without pollination, we’d lose the almonds, as well as apples, coffee, walnuts, most beans, carrots . . . the list goes on.
In the vital documentary More Than Honey, a Californian almond farmer explains that pollination coincides with when the trees are sprayed with pesticides. The timing has to be this way for efficiency, the farmer says: Staff already have to be out there to supervise the bees; it would be a waste of money to prolong the operation. In the film, we see a bee nestled in a flower suddenly blasted with a toxic white powder, immobilizing her wings. The bee hovers for a second, frozen in flight, before her carcass tumbles to the ground.
Colony Collapse Disorder was first reported in 2006: Countless colonies of bees were decimated all over the planet, and the causes of this disaster remain unknown. Statistics vary depending on the region, but 50% to 90% of bees were reported to have disappeared. No bodies were found; no predators were located.
In 2013, Bryan Walsh wrote in TIME Magazine that bees were perhaps the “canary down the coal-mine” when it comes to climate change: Perhaps they are simply the first species to go, an alarm bell for the rest of us to change our tack or get the hell out. The decline of the honeybees has plateaued and even slightly reverted since 2013, though, which is good news.
In China, honeybee populations have declined such that workers have to hand pollinate many crops. Hanuyan County in Sichuan province is known as the world’s pear capital—just like California is the world’s almond capital—and there, workers use a long brush topped with chicken feathers to swirl around the stamen of the male flower, then dust the collected pollen onto the stigma of the female flower. To ensure proper pollination, every surface of every flower must be touched. No honey is produced in this process, of course, since mankind is still incapable of reproducing the magical alchemy of the apiary.
The way our ecosystem has been manipulated, with cash crops replacing natural environments, a rental bee market is necessary for pollination. And if the climate and conditions continue to endanger the bee population, human pollinators might become necessary to prevent economic and environmental collapse.
Writer, based in Toronto, author of The Honey Farm.