The Super Bowl of Beekeeping
Almond growing in California is a $7.6 billion industry that wouldn’t be possible without the 30 billion bees (and hundreds of human beekeepers) who keep the trees pollinated — and whose very existence is in peril
Will Nissen’s bees north of Bakersfield, Calif.Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times
Every February, white petals blanket first the almond trees, then the floor of the central valley, an 18,000-square-mile expanse of California that begins at the stretch of highway known as the Grapevine just south of Bakersfield and reaches north to the foothills of the Cascades. The blooms represent the beginning of the valley’s growing season each year: Almond trees are first to bud, flower and fruit. At the base of the trunks sit splintered boxes — some marked with numbers, some with names, some with insignias — stacked two boxes high on a wooden pallet that fits four stacks. Inside the boxes are bees, dancing in circles and figure-eights and sometimes just waggling. With almond season comes bee season. Everyone in the valley knows when it’s bee season. There are bee-specific truckers; motels occupied by seasonal workers; annual dinners to welcome the out-of-towners; weathered pickups with license plates from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Florida parked in front of orchards at all hours of the night. And those ubiquitous boxes.
This year the beekeepers responsible for those bees gathered on a mid-February Saturday for a potluck lunch at a community center in Kerman, a small town of ranch houses wreathed by acres upon acres of almond orchards. The meeting was supposed to kick off the pollinating season, but the beekeepers, many of them wearing tucked-in plaid shirts and trucker caps with dirt-curled bills, had already been at work for a couple of weeks, summoned to the state early by a heat wave. The sun beckoned the blossoms, and the blossoms begged for the bees. Farmers have a window of just a few weeks when pollination has to happen, otherwise the nuts won’t set, which is what it’s called when blossoms are pollinated and kernels emerge. When the nuts don’t set, much of a crop can be lost. By the time of the potluck, it seemed as if the season were already at its midpoint.
The beekeepers lined up to fill their paper plates with pork chops, baked beans, chicken, rice, salad and three different kinds of cake. Teri Solomon, the organizer of the event and a longtime local beekeeper, collected $10 each for lunch. A list of speakers was taped to the table where she sat — respected beekeepers, bee brokers, scientists, a Fresno County sheriff’s police detective and a rep from the Almond Board of California. Topics of the day included the steady growth of the almond industry, the science of pollination, agricultural theft (hence the cop) and the ever-more-imperiled state of honeybees. That last item carried the most weight with the crowd, as they were all struggling to maintain the vast numbers of bees needed for almond pollination. Bees are central to an enormous agricultural industry — about one of every three mouthfuls of food we eat wouldn’t exist without bee pollination — and beekeepers’ custodianship of billions of these delicate animals is as much an art as it is a science. Beekeepers themselves, Solomon confided, are funny creatures: solitary in the field, trying to anticipate the needs of a finicky insect and, unlike that insect, social only once in a while. “We’re an odd bunch, very individualistic in nature,” she said. “But we’re in trouble.”
Mostly the beekeepers and bee brokers — the agents who negotiate contracts between beekeepers and farmers — were trying to get a sense from one another of how badly bee populations had been hit, how much each was charging per hive and how much they could increase that price for the next season. There was talk of disease, pesticides, drought, floods, suburban sprawl, parasites. They talked shop: Which menthol strips are you using to inoculate your bees? How often do you change the treatment-laced pad placed in the hive to keep your bees healthy? Are the wafers or quick strips more effective for mites? Where do you apply them in the box, and for how long? Does the medication affect the performance of the bees? Can you get rid of a mite infestation, or are preventive measures the only option?
About 10 years ago, the nation was seized with alarm when a Pennsylvania beekeeper lost 90 percent of his bees. He found that entire colonies had abandoned their queen. Losses like this were reported across North America and in Europe, but no one knows exactly what caused the die-off that came to be called colony-collapse disorder (C.C.D.). There hasn’t been a reported case of C.C.D. in years, but bee populations within colonies are still declining, and many scientists point to parasites as the cause. Since 2006, annual winter losses in colonies have averaged more than 28 percent, nearly double the historical winter mortality rate of 15 percent; in 2015, the U.S.D.A. reported more losses in the previous summer than the winter for the first time ever. According to Gene Brandi, a former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, the current plight of the bee population can be summed up in the four P’s: parasites, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.
Pollination is a migratory practice now — more than two-thirds of America’s honeybees are mobilized for pollinating almond trees, and most come from out-of-state apiaries. One slide from the Almond Board rep showed the path of beekeepers who transport their colonies in semi-trucks around the nation seasonally — bees winter in Texas and Florida, head to California for almonds, then often summer in cooler states like North and South Dakota, where beekeepers will rebuild their colonies by splitting hives and feeding their bees manufactured protein patties and natural forage. The Midwest used to provide weeds, wildflowers and alfalfa for native and domesticated bees alike, but in the last couple of decades much of this food source has disappeared. Drought and suburban sprawl leave beekeepers with less open acreage for their bees to forage.
Last year, climate-intensified hurricanes and flooding along the Gulf Coast destroyed entire apiaries; they drowned blooms in Florida and led to the starvation of thousands of bees; wildfires in Santa Barbara and Ventura, Calif., killed more. And beekeepers need to worry not only about keeping their charges alive but also about keeping them from being stolen. Last year, just a few miles from Kerman, two men were arrested in association with what may be the largest bee heist ever, a three-year crime spree that added up to nearly a million dollars’ worth of stolen bees. A preliminary hearing is set for November. When one defendant was caught at a local bee yard with stolen boxes, local newspapers and major media outlets had fun with the bee heist, lacing copy with inevitable puns about sting operations. But the reality for beekeepers and bees is much more grave.
The worst of the woes is the Varroa mite, a pest that was identified in the mid-’80s. The mite has become increasingly associated with the spread of viruses, including deformed-wing virus. The size of a poppy seed, this parasite sucks blood from both adults and developing broods. Varroa leaves bees in a zombie state, unable to navigate.
Lyle Johnston, a beekeeper and broker based in Colorado, described his methods for keeping colonies healthy: Feed them protein patties to make up for the lack of forage, and place menthol strips in the brood chamber in early fall to stave off mites. And always reserve some of the honey that bees produce to feed them come winter. He learned that last tip in the early ’90s from Joe Traynor, a bee broker based in Bakersfield, who has been renting bees since 1959. The audience sat rapt. While most of Johnston’s peers were losing 40 percent of their bees every season, Johnston said he was losing only 10 percent. “Until you have a mite collapse and your bees actually go down, you don’t really learn how to treat for mites,” he said. “A lot of guys go through hard times, get their butts kicked” — losing thousands of colonies, sometimes all their bees.
“If cattlemen lost 50 percent of their cows, you know people would do something and react,” Chris Hiatt, vice president of the American Honey Producers Association, told me. “But since it’s bees and everyone thinks we can just breed more, nothing’s done. No one appreciates the stress we’re under.”
Domesticated honeybees and agriculture have been tethered to each other for millenniums. Egyptians floated hives up and down the Nile to pollinate flowers. Some honey jars were even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Highly refined apiculture techniques existed in prehistoric Greece, Israel, ancient China and Mayan civilizations. When colonists came to the New World, they brought bees in straw hives. When pioneers traveled west on the prairie, bees accompanied them in covered wagons. The biggest break in modern beekeeping came in the mid-19th century with the invention of a portable hive by Lorenzo Langstroth, a clergyman and apiarist. The bee box, with its suspended files of removable honeycomb, was so effective that its design has barely changed in all the years since. Langstroth allowed space for bees between and around combs — he calculated the optimal gap to be about three-eighths of an inch wide; less space is sealed with propolis and wax, while wider gaps are filled with comb. The box made it possible to move great distances with thousands of bees. Bees traveled by steamboat and rail, and once the Model T was invented, they were trucked from orchard to pasture and back again.
Now they’re transported to Florida to pollinate watermelons, to Washington State for cherries or apples, to Maine for blueberries. And to California for almonds — the largest managed pollination event in the world. California grows more than 80 percent of the world’s almond supply. In 2014, the almond industry contributed $7.6 billion to California’s economy and was responsible for more than 100,000 jobs. A record total of 1.3 million acres in the state were devoted to almond production last year, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year.
The almond industry’s bullish expansion is not without controversy. It takes one gallon of water to produce a single almond; almond cultivation requires water year-round in a state where residential water usage has been restricted and some rural communities don’t have clean water at all.
On a hot February afternoon in Chowchilla, about 45 minutes north of Fresno, Johnston pulled up to an orchard in bloom. The trees appeared from afar to be still, but they were in fact vibrating with activity. “The almond pollination is the Super Bowl of beekeeping,” Johnston told me. His family has been in the bee business for 110 years. For decades, Johnston Honey Farms was primarily a business that sold honey. “I’d rather just do honey; it’d be a lot less stress,” he said. “We had to find another way to generate revenue. When I first started in the ’80s, we were probably 80 percent honey, 20 percent pollination, and now it’s the opposite.” In recent years, American beekeepers have been finding it increasingly difficult to compete against cheaper honey from China. As a result, most beekeepers turn to pollination events — especially the almond season — to make ends meet.
Many beekeeping operations are, like Johnston’s, third- and fourth-generation businesses. Johnston always knew he would be a beekeeper — on his first day of school, he left during recess to go home and tend to the bees. “Dad had Mom take me right back to school, but there was no question I was always going to work in bees.”
At 6-foot-5, Johnston towers over his hives, and he is scientific when it comes to his bees. He is beholden to his tiny insects, his mood dictated by their moods. Today they were happy, so he was happy. The bees, coated in pollen, flew from branch to hive and back again, with full pollen baskets, the part of the insect’s legs where they store loads for their brood. The bees clustered at the bottom of each box, pushing to deposit their pollen into a cell where larvae would eventually emerge, expanding the colony’s population. Johnston burned wood pellets in a gunny sack to work up mesquite smoke to pacify the bees, then pulled a frame out of one of his boxes. His bees looked fat and healthy and boisterous. A good beekeeper can immediately tell when a hive is unhealthy: The bees push to the outer edges of the frame as if they’re trying to escape.
As one of the biggest brokers in the nation, Johnston was running 73,000 hives with a rental value of roughly $14 million per year, distributed among his 22 beekeepers. According to the U.S.D.A.’s Cost of Pollination Survey, an annual tracking of honeybee health and pollination costs that started in 2016, 1.7 million colonies were used to pollinate almond trees in 2016; an estimated two million colonies were needed in 2018. “If almonds went down, we wouldn’t be running bees,” Johnston said — meaning the financial incentive of the pollination event would disappear. “The population of bees would change; it would drop by around a million hives.”
Honeybees used for managed pollination are domesticated; they are actually considered by a number of states to be livestock. Without their human keepers, honeybees might have faced extinction decades ago, as some of their native counterparts are beginning to now. Three bumblebees are believed to have gone extinct already: Bombus rubriventris, Bombus melanopoda and Bombus franklini; the rusty-patched bumblebee was listed under the Endangered Species Act just last year. The threat to both managed and wild bees is considered serious enough that in 2015 President Barack Obama established a task force to promote the health of honeybees. Its report called upon the Department of Agriculture to track honeybee-colony loss and to restore millions of acres of land to pollinator habitat.
At the potluck lunch, the Almond Board rep passed along a U.S.D.A. forecast that by 2020, 300,000 additional acres of almond trees would be blooming. Johnston said: “They’ve tripled the acreage since I started, and I remember an old-time grower telling me this thing is all going to go down; when they get to 400,000 or 500,000 acres, this thing is going to collapse like a crater. He was totally wrong: They blew right past that, and they’re going for more.” The problem is that there aren’t enough healthy bees to accommodate the growth of the almond industry.
On a dry-erase board in an office in the back of a lab lined with experimental patches of wildflowers in the entomology department of U.C. Davis, the professor and researcher Neal Williams explained what he teaches to his undergraduate and graduate students and what he has found through decades of research. Pollinators can produce crops in a variety of ways — and sometimes, obviously, as nature intended, just by showing up. “Some of the work we’ve done is to determine whether some combination of wild bees with honeybees improves overall pollination,” Williams said. “If there is a synergy. If you want more pollination, you either need more bees or you need to make them better.” Williams found that planting wildflowers increases pollination in two ways: It attracts native pollinators, which create competition in managed honeybees, and the wildflowers vary bees’ nutritional intake. Several years ago, Williams conducted a study that monitored populations of bees for two consecutive seasons when growers planted wildflowers on the borders of their orchards. The results established that the wildflowers had not distracted honeybees from almond pollination.
Farmers have worried that flowering plants compete for pollination with almond blossoms, so they’re reluctant to allow for any other plantings. The bases of almond trees are usually stripped clean, with mounds of bare soil protecting the roots. To persuade growers to adopt new techniques, Williams and a colleague developed an algorithm to determine the exact cost-effective plants to suit the specific needs of each crop. But almond growers are reluctant to change standard practices, especially when there’s financial risk involved.
Agricultural entities — including California’s Almond Board — pour money into pollinator research, but they are simultaneously anticipating the end of bees. There was talk in Kerman about a new variety of almond tree that is self-pollinating. One almond grower and distributor said a lot of new orchards were buying the self-pollinating plants, but no one could tell if the trees were actually self-pollinating or if the bees from neighboring orchards were slipping into their blooms. Either way, the same farmer added, the almonds tasted bad, and he wouldn’t be planting them anytime soon. Outside the ag labs, extreme measures to address the apocalyptic world-without-bees scenario include the deployment, in China, of armies of workers to hand-pollinate crops. In March, Walmart filed a patent application for a drone pollinator. “Robot bees would be a major challenge,” said Nigel Raine, a University of Guelph pollinator researcher. “I would be really nervous about putting our faith in robot bees.”
Driving outside Bakersfield, Will Nissen of Five Star Honey Farms pointed out the orchards owned by the Mormon Church, the Wonderful Company and retirement and investment funds. Then he pointed to his colorful and branded boxes at the base of almond trees. It was the end of the day, and his bees were all heading to the hives for the night. After releasing a plume of smoke, he pulled open one of their roofs (“You’d be angry too, if someone took the roof off your house!”) — then delicately exposed a hanging frame. Nissen showed me the filled honeycomb where larvae would start poking through, workers waggling and the queen, bigger and colored a deeper orange than her drones. After almond season, Nissen and his wife, Peggy, would spend several months breeding queens for future broods. He asked if I’d ever tasted fresh honey and handed me a chunk of wax with liquid dripping from the sides. I could taste the pollen, a texture like dust, and then the honey. I couldn’t tell if the honey tasted like almonds or if almonds taste like bees.
Nissen had been deployed by his broker, Joe Traynor, who was too busy during bee season to leave his office. For the first few months of every year, Traynor, 82, sends a flurry of emails to a list of all the beekeepers and brokers and scientists he has encountered — updates, research reports, weather forecasts and long-winded exchanges about the nature of bees. Sometimes he’ll forward a poem — like the one he sent after frost threatened this year’s crop written from the perspective of a farmer praying for rain and debating suicide. Traynor studied agriculture at U.C. Davis and by his own admission wasn’t a great student. “I got a C in economics at U.C.D. — all I learned was the law of supply and demand,” he said. Now, after nearly 50 years of renting bees, the demand is wearing on him. He barely sleeps during almond season and spent hours creating aerial crop maps, color-coded to indicate which acres he’s responsible for pollinating.
At his office in downtown Bakersfield, Traynor shared his collection of bee research and theories on pollination. The hallway to his office was shedding paint; on his door, a simple brass plate read “Scientific Ag Co.,” as if he were a private investigator. Inside the office — where he catches whatever sleep he can during the season — files, books and papers were stacked on every conceivable surface. Traynor’s shy, studied demeanor shifts at the mention of bees. He becomes laser-focused. Every year, he gets the same anxiety about whether he’ll have enough bees for his growers, whether his bees will perform, whether the almonds will set and how fast he can get the boxes out of the fields before farmers start working their crops with pesticides. There is a lot of tension between beekeepers and growers about timing. Once blooms are pollinated, growers will start spraying their orchards, and bees have to be removed quickly.
That night 130 people gathered at the annual beekeepers’ dinner Traynor hosts with Mike Mulligan, another area bee broker. A sudden frost had set in, and they stood around open-pit fires at Mulligan’s house, adjacent to an almond orchard. Beekeepers and brokers and scientists talked about the same issues discussed at the meeting in Kerman a week earlier. How do we treat hives for Varroa mites? What do we do to feed our bees when there’s no forage? How do we keep up with pollination? How can we raise prices if the frost affects almonds? How do we continue on as beekeepers without going broke? All the questions added up to one big question that hovers over every meeting and every dinner and every potluck: What is the future of bees?
Mulligan stood in front of the crowd to say a prayer for friends and for the season. He talked about how at the beginning of pollination he was worried he would be short a thousand hives. “The bees aren’t looking good, the weather is lousy, we just have to cancel,” one of his beekeepers called and told him from Texas. Mulligan reminded himself of a passage from Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Within a couple of days, he made up the loss with last-minute hives from local keepers whose plans had fallen through and who needed to place their bees. Many other beekeepers short on hives did not have the same luck.
Each year the beekeepers compare notes on whether to raise prices for pollination in the coming season — a decision that might depend on drought or frost or how big the almond crop would be. But one thing they didn’t anticipate, back at that dinner in February, was a tariff war. Beekeepers are now negotiating contracts with almond growers for next season. This season’s yield, which will be harvested in September, is projected to be a record crop. But trade disputes that have been initiated by the Trump administration are likely to affect most large-scale nut distributors, because both China and Europe are major buyers. If President Trump’s policies are carried out, almonds sold to China will be subjected to an additional 15 percent retaliatory tariff starting Aug. 23.
“Beekeepers are pushed into the margins,” said Randy Verhoek, former president of the American Honey Producers Association. “We’re doing things we never imagined would even be a factor in beekeeping. We’re just trying to do everything we can to keep them healthy, because there’s nowhere to go. Where are we going to go?” Verhoek, a migratory beekeeper based in Texas, has dealt with one almond grower in California for 17 years. This past season, he dropped 9,000 hives on 4,000 or so acres. He’ll gross $1.4 million from pollinating almonds, but when I asked him about profits, he said, “Well, that’s the problem with beekeepers; we don’t crunch the numbers. We just put everything back in the business and hope we’ll be here next year.”
Jaime Lowe is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the author of “Mental.” She previously wrote a feature about the incarcerated women who fight California wildfires.
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