Is the Almond Milk We are Drinking Bad for the Bees?
by Helena Friesen, with additional research by M. B. Shaw, for the Food Issues Committee
The Food Issues Committee has been asked to look into the question of whether our increasing consumption of almond products is contributing to the decline in bees (1). How almond farming practices are related to the health of bees may interest members who buy any of Karma’s almond products including almond milk, almond-based products such as yogurt and flour, and almonds in bulk. All North American almond products come from almonds grown in California.
These almonds require bees. And bees are not doing well. For the last decade and a half, American beekeepers have been losing in the neighbourhood of 30% of their hives each year; in the winter of 2018-19, it was 38% (2). Several factors are thought to contribute to high bee mortality (3):
The single most serious problem identified by beekeepers is the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, whichcan weaken bees and spread viruses (4). Varroa is an invasive species from Asia and European honeybees, such as those kept in the United States, are especially vulnerable.
- Migratory Beekeeping
California has 1.5 million acres of almond orchards, producing over 80% of the world’s almonds. At flowering time, there are not enough wild bees to pollinate all the almond flowers. So, every February, commercial beekeepers are paid to truck their hives, comprising over 70% of the nation’s commercial bees, to California’s Central Valley, with stays of up to 2 months (5,6). Bringing so many bees together all at once increases the likelihood that they will exchange viruses, mites and fungi (7,8).
- Monoculture Farming
The cultivation of a single crop in a given area, such as is used on almond farms, is a third factor. Forcing bees to gather pollen and nectar from a single crop means they suffer from nutritional stress due to lack of diversity in their diet (3).
Another factor that has been demonstrated to affect the health of bees is the use of pesticides, including use at sublethal levels (3,9).
Steps being taken to protect bees:
Hiring bees is expensive and both beekeepers and almond farmers are motivated to keep bees healthy.
Programs have been introduced to make farms safer for bees, including Bee Where, in which beekeepers alert pesticide applicators to the position of hives (10). There are also certification programs, including Bee Better and Bee Friendly Farming (BFF), in which farmers increase biodiversity by offering a variety of flowering plants and forage to provide good nutrition for bees, habitat for nesting, water and reduced use of pesticides (11). Organic is generally recognized as equivalent to BFF while Bee Better is more demanding.
In February 2020, 10% of almond farmers met BFF criteria. Look out for products labelled BFF or Bee Better as these may become more recognizable in the years to come.
Almonds are not the primary culprit in the decline of bees, but the monoculture farming and migratory beekeeping prevalent in California likely play a role, as does the use of pesticides. The best option for bees might be to direct our choices toward farming practices that are more friendly to bees, and to buy more seasonal and more local food.
The Food Issues Committee (FIC) knows that our members are conscientious food consumers who value the Karma Product Policy (12). One role of the FIC is to provide members with information so that they can make informed choices. The FIC is currently reviewing Karma’s almond products using our Product Matrix, a decision-making guide based on our Product Policy, and we will communicate the results of this review.
- Chmiel, J. A. et al., Understanding the Effects of Sublethal Pesticide Exposure on Honey Bees: A Role for Probiotics as Mediators of Environmental Stress. Front. Ecol. Evol., 19 February 2020. Article 22