The Bee Series: America's Favorite Nut


Even if you've read my previous essays regarding the importance of the honey bee for both America and the world's environment, and our subsequent awareness of their fragility in a balance of pesticides, natural predators and diseases, I've given you little proof of the insect's tangible benefits for our lives, our markets and our tables. First, I wanted to learn about and expose myself to the highly publicized concerns that honey bees (and wild bees, too!) face as part of the overarching American ecosystem and ultimately part of the human, capitalist infrastructure. When corporations, growers and buyers forget about the organisms and processes that exist in open fields, orchards and greenhouses, they often sacrifice the authenticity and safety of healthy, happy food and animals. And while I'm not necessarily rallying for radical protesting against some sort of harmful negligence in the honey bee industry, I want to underline the importance of a gained awareness in learning about the species.

Thus, as I've already provided some information about the detriments and dangers that honey bees face (check out that article here!), I wanted to focus on a specifically American industry that involves honey bees and beekeepers. Currently standing as America's largest specialty crop export (The Almond Board of California) and a trusted Mayo Clinic super food, the California almond crunches heartily between your teeth and rejuvenates your body; however, it wouldn't be internationally available year-round without the invaluable help of the commercial beekeeping industry. Behind the high prices and gushing health aficionados that barrage you with the nuts' benefits constantly, there's an intense industry and relationship between California almond growers and migratory, commercial beekeepers.

Each year, before the stifling summer heat waves set in, the two industries band together-almond growers in America, whose combined efforts in selling shelled almonds produced over 5.33 billion dollars in 2015 (CDFA Report), are fully reliant on these migratory beekeepers' colonies to pollinate California's February almond crops. While the nut growers sustain profit and their crop's large yields through the process of consistent and strong pollination efforts, the beekeepers themselves reap incredible prices from the placement of their colonies in Almond orchards. For example, in 2010, low supplies of bee colonies resulted in steady sales of two hundred dollars per colony in San Joaquin Valley California almond orchards. When the commercial beekeepers select the proper deal and are in the right place at the right time, the almond pollination industry is like the miracle, agricultural gold rush for their yearly income.

However, when colony supplies are healthy due to strong national over-winter rates and general health in honey bee populations, growers are able to acquire higher volumes of bees for lower prices. This leads to fewer profiting beekeepers and lower yearly incomes for the industry, which has found irresistible monetary incentive in relationships with these nut growers over honey production in recent years. So, while the relationship between beekeepers and California nut growers is blossoming and incredibly amicable, the industry itself is unpredictable.

For example, if the annual weather is either too tumultuous (rain, snow, drought), almond yields are lower, and beekeepers suffer from lower incomes because almond growers will predict more marginal dependencies on honey bee colonies. If rains come too early or too late, or if a rogue frost eradicates blossoms at the wrong times, almond orchards suffer; and inversely, if beekeepers' colony counts suffer from harsh winters, there are fewer colonies available for a high-yield crop year. Furthermore, the almond pollination process is one that's techniques are unpredictable and not sufficiently backed up by one universally-working technique for beekeepers and growers alike. Beekeepers often debate on the efficacy of six-frame colonies per acre versus regularly sized 10-12 frame boxes (Eischen et al 2007)-many find that they can spend less time and money transporting fewer bees that can handle the same amount of pollination per acre as larger colonies that take up more space and time. However, when yields are unpredictably high, split colonies cannot manage entire acres that they are allocated to.

Through the unpredictability and inherent risk in the process of honey bee-assisted almond pollination that takes place in the early months of the year in California, the migratory beekeepers involved face probable failure and loss in their yearly income by participating with growers who can't account for these unpredictable natural factors. Most importantly, however, is the relationship that does exist between the two industries. By educating the almond growers on the intricacies of the honey bee, and by paying them for their populations' invaluable help, beekeepers and the business they participate in becomes vastly important. The almond is just one fruit that benefits from honey bee pollination. Imagine if the majority of the produce you purchase in your weekly visits to the grocery store was gone-without the natural pollination of these crops by honey bees and wild bees, humans would not have the plethora of beneficial nutrients available today.

It's fascinating and hugely impressive to realize that such a healthy, beneficially natural food like the almond is so reliant on one species. The nonpareil almond, which is a cultivar that must be pollinated and provides almost 75% edible kernels, would not be on store shelves for such staggering prices today without these beekeepers' efforts and interest in forming mutually beneficial relationships with growers. In terms of the almond's benefits, in case you're unaware: the nut is proven to support active weight loss, protects the body from diabetes and many cardiovascular diseases, and is choc-full of riboflavin, copper and manganese. Because it is high in natural fats, protein and fiber, the nut provides energy and a substantially satiating feeling that lasts for hours and takes the place of junk foods that provide no nutrients for the body. For Americans, who are in a contemporary discourse that embraces fresh, healthy ingredients and alternatives to super-sized, sodium-filled mindsets, the almond is a universal mascot for health-conscious attitudes and diets.

Thus, what happens when we're unaware of the honey bee's struggles and dangers, through man-made neonicotinoids, miticides and inevitable climate changes and viruses? The absence of this nationally adored fruit would be just one blow to our daily lives. Next time you eat a bag of mixed nuts, or want some sort of healthy crunch on top of your field greens, remember to trace the almonds in front of you back to their conception in the hands of the honey bee. As I've stated before, I'll make sure to do the same thing: through research and engagement with the environment around me, I'm enriching my own existence and becoming more aware of the struggle and work that goes into the relative ease and comfort of my daily life.

-Jonathan Finkelstein

Final: The Bee Series: VP Queen Bees Video Tour