Bees are one of the five animals vital to our planet’s existence!
Bees are responsible for pollinating flowers and plants, and experts agree  that they are vital to a stable food supply. Without them, the life cycle of millions of plants would be incomplete, and these critical plant sources of food would die off.
Unfortunately, as you’ve no doubt seen in the headlines over the last decade or so, the world’s bee population is declining. A number of factors contribute to the increasing death of bees and bee colonies, including :
Destruction of bee habitats
and the list goes on…
But here’s one thing you might not expect to be a reason for so many bee deaths: vegan milk.
That’s right, according to an early 2020 report in The Guardian , one very popular vegan product could have a huge role to play in the decline of the bee population.
Want to know what this product is? You probably have it in your fridge right now, and you use it as a replacement for cow’s milk. That’s correct, we’re talking about almond milk!
According to the article, commercial beekeepers rely heavily on the pollination of almond groves to keep their bee farms alive. Honey is a far less lucrative product than almonds (thanks to the popularity of almond milk), so apiarists rent out their bee colonies to almond farms as a means of earning additional income.
Right now, roughly 80% of the world’s almond supply comes from one place in California: Central Valley. The presence of so many almond farms means that bees are in high demand in order to pollinate the almond trees that grow this lucrative product.
Unfortunately, a lot of beekeepers are reporting that their beehives are dying off at an alarming rate—in the Guardian article, one beekeeper reported 150 of their hives, 12% of their total, had died off after renting them out to almond farms.
During the winter months of 2018 to 2019, an estimated 50 billion bees died off or were wiped out. That’s roughly 40% of the total U.S. bee population—a truly alarming number.
But what caused the die-off? What could possibly be killing so many bees in such a short amount of time?
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Aside from the causes mentioned above, there are four that beekeepers consider the most concerning:
Diseases from parasites. Mites are a threat to bees, and if they’re allowed to flourish in almond tree farms, they can wipe out entire hives.
Habitat loss. Global warming and environmental pollution can make previously livable regions of the country uninhabitable by bees, which are not as hardy as other insects.
Pesticide exposure. This is considered one of the gravest threats bees face. One Forbes article  written in response to the Guardian piece mentioned above actually claims that this is the greatest threat, due to the fact that manufacturers are always looking to make cheaper pesticides, which means they are often stronger and more dangerous. Bees are delicate insects, and they suffer when exposed to harsh chemicals. The use of pesticides in the almond farms could be one major cause behind the bee die-off.
Industrial agriculture methods. This is the prime threat emphasized by the Guardian article. Essentially, the almond farming industry has become highly industrialized in order to produce a cheap enough product to meet high demand. Unfortunately, almond farming is a fairly delicate process, particularly the parts where bees are involved. Industrial methods are anything but delicate, which means they can cause damage—if not to the almond trees, then to the bees brought in to pollinate them.
Experts claim that using bees in commercial farms like these almond farms are causing the bees harm, undermining the bees’ very ecosystem and creating an environment that slowly becomes less and less livable.
Bees require a very varied ecosystem, a landscape with a great deal of biodiversity in order to flourish. However, bringing them in to these almond farms puts them what’s called a “monoculture”, a landscape with minimal biodiversity. They are then expected to flourish in this monoculture year after year and be productive, pollinating the almond trees on the commercial farms. Doing this can seriously harm the bees, leading to higher bee deaths than all the other fish and livestock in the U.S. combined.
Pollinating almond trees also forces the bees to awake from their winter dormancy one to two months early, interfering with their usual life cycle. Then they are exposed to a wide range of diseases that are present in the single region where they are pollinating, leading to higher bee deaths as a result of sickness.
The ready availability of cheap honey (or commercially produced “honey products”) is forcing beekeepers to find other ways to make money from their beehives, but if these “other methods” are as dangerous as almond farming has appeared to be, there is a very real chance that beehives will continue to die off and the threat to our ecology will grow.
Some people are trying to find a way to protect the bees while keeping the almond farming industry alive. The not-for-profit Xerces Society has pushed to introduce biodiversity into the Central Valley almond farms in order to not only provide bees with the diverse landscape they need to flourish, but also control pests to protect the bees. Some farmers are avoiding the use of pesticides—which leads to a smaller crop, but reduces bee deaths and actually provides the bees an environment where they can flourish.
However, with the very real threat to bees persisting, it’s important that we are all aware of the problem, and find ways to mitigate it. For now, the best the average consumer can do is buy organic, locally-sourced honey and products marked with the “Bee Better”  seal. Reducing almond milk and almond purchases may help to decrease the need for industrialized almond farming, but at the very least buying products that are made with bee safety and health in mind will encourage the growth and recovery of the damaged beehives.
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