To drive through California's Central Valley is to witness farming on a baffling scale. For hundreds of miles along either side of Highway 99—which splits the valley from the college town of Chico in the north to the sprawling, boxy city of Bakersfield in the south—are orderly corridors of grapevines and cherry trees, followed by flat expanses of yams, followed by fields of carrots and the gigantic harvesters that yank them from the ground by the thousands. Dwarfing all these crops, however, are row after row of snaggly black-limbed almond trees, punctuated occasionally by monolithic towers where the nuts are shelled. In recent years, these almond groves have grown to cover almost a million acres; they now produce four-fifths of all the almonds in the world.
The Central Valley is a paradoxical place, both desolate and tremendously fertile. As Joan Didion, a native of the region, wrote in 1965, the towns there “hint at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins,” yet “U.S. 99 in fact passes through the richest and most intensely cultivated agricultural region in the world, a giant outdoor hothouse with a billion-dollar crop.” Generations of farmers have transformed this arid and flat valley into a machine that produces more than a third of the vegetables in the United States and nearly two-thirds of the fruits and nuts. To keep running, it must be fed with tremendous quantities of fertilizer, flooded with water pumped from deep underground or diverted from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, doused with insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and harvested by an arsenal of lumbering machinery. But for the system to work, it also needs bees.
Today, to pollinate California’s almond crop alone requires the services of up to three-quarters of all the managed honeybees in the United States. And they don’t get to the valley on their own; the bees are trucked in by the billion from as far away as Florida each January, just before the trees begin to bloom.
When I step out of my car on a dusty Central Valley bluff where the beekeeper Zac Browning is unloading his hives, I’m surrounded by the sound of a strenuous C note. There are bees crawling on metal drums of wax, bees roiling on the spigots of plastic syrup vats, bees on the trucks and forklifts parked along the rim of the escarpment. What look like yellow ice-cream sprinkles litter the ground and spatter the cars. Bee feces, which few of us have cause to think about when we see a solitary bee buzzing around a garden, take on more significance when the swarms number half a billion, at which point you learn to wear a hat.
Managing a pollination operation the size of the Brownings’ requires a martial level of logistical coordination. Zac’s company, Browning’s Honey Co., which he runs with his two brothers, an array of cousins, nephews, and in-laws, and about two dozen employees, is one of the larger beekeeping operations in the country. They have two permanent bases, one in North Dakota, where most of the colonies spend the summer making honey, and one in Idaho, where the bees are stored for the winter in temperature-controlled warehouses before being driven to California. Once they arrive in the Golden State, the Brownings need to find a secure place to keep thousands of hives. (With hives renting for up to $200 apiece, boosting bees can be more lucrative than boosting cars, a detective in Bakersfield told me.) This year Zac has found such a place here in an almond orchard atop a plateau 30 miles outside of Modesto, one of the largest cities in the region.
Getting the bees to California isn’t even half the battle. Almond trees bloom for about two weeks out of the year, and before they do, the bees need to be distributed, two hives to an acre, across the valley’s almond orchards. Before that happens, beekeepers spend their days scouting orchards—tying ribbons on trees, annotating satellite maps, and marking GPS coordinates—so they can return at night to deliver the hives while the bees are resting. Even with the markers, beekeepers still get lost in the endless corridors of identical trees, which become murky and strange when lit by nothing but the red lights of forklifts glowing through the smoke of a beekeeper’s bellows. “It’s pollination season,” one of several bee brokers, who match beekeepers with almond growers, told me grimly. “You don’t sleep during pollination season.”
The ecologist Ruth DeFries calls the last half-century of agricultural industrialization "the Big Ratchet." It is the latest and most extreme example of a cycle of technological innovation that has allowed humanity to thrive in the face of constant ecological crises.
Zac, a large man in his late 30s with short black hair and a goatee, dressed in a white beekeeping tunic and veiled pith helmet, walks slowly down the orchard road, puffing burlap smoke from his wax-encrusted metal bellows. The smoke subdues the bees by masking their alarm pheromones. At each hive Zac stops, pries off the lid, and counts how many wax-comb boards are covered with crawling golden insects. He opens one hive and finds it almost empty—just a queen and a few listless workers. “A deadout,” Zac says, and drags it to the middle of the road. Soon, a forklift will carry the hive to the back of the orchard where more deadouts are stacked, ready to be trucked back to Idaho.
Zac would prefer to be home in North Dakota, dispersing his hives across the ranches and plains there and waiting as they fill with honey—beekeeping like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather practiced. But years of declining honey yields have made it impossible to run a business on honey alone. These days, crop pollination pays the bills, and almonds are by far the most lucrative crop. For many beekeepers, almonds are the first stop on an annual cross-country pollination circuit. They drop their hives off in California and for two weeks their bees fly from blossom to blossom, fertilizing flowers that four months later will turn into almost $5 billion worth of nuts. When the petals fall the beekeepers reclaim their hives and drive to the next crop. Some go to blueberries in Maine or apples in Washington; others go to cranberries in Wisconsin or cherries in Oregon.
Without bees our supermarkets would be far blander and less nutritious places. There would still be grains, but fewer of the many fruits, nuts, and vegetables that need bees to pollinate them. The Department of Agriculture estimates that bees add about $15 billion in value to the crops they pollinate, and these days, they get driven to those crops on trucks. Avocados, plums, pears, cantaloupes, cucumbers: they all get pollinated by a migrant force of honeybees. This system operates more or less unnoticed by the general public. One morning the hives appear in the fields, and a few weeks later they’re gone.
The Brownings couldn’t have lasted a century in the beekeeping business if they weren’t good at adapting. When Idaho went from unclaimed pasture to fenced-off fields, Zac says, his grandparents made deals to place their bees—in need of blooming flowers—on landowners’ plots. When farmers started spraying insecticides, they learned to move their hives in a hurry. When new farming practices, like the use of chemical fertilizer, reduced forage and cut into honey yields, Zac’s father started taking his bees to almond farms to get a boost from the early-blooming flowers.
But recently the Brownings have had to adapt faster. For the past seven years, as has been widely reported, honeybees have been dying at an alarming rate. Yet today there are slightly more hives in the country than before the die-offs began. That’s because beekeeping families like the Brownings have moved beyond panic and begun quietly adjusting to a strenuous way of doing business, one that requires constant monitoring, treatment, supplemental feeding, rapid replacement of dead hives, and grudging participation in an agricultural system that grows increasingly inhospitable to the bees it needs to survive.
The honeybee is one of about 20,000 bee species, all of which descended from a vegetarian wasp that lived some 100 million years ago. Unlike their insectivorous cousins, bees get their protein from the pollen of flowering plants, with which they’ve evolved a mutual dependence. As bees gather pollen and nectar, their static-charged fur accumulates pollen that brushes off on the sticky stigma of the next plant they visit, fertilizing it. As the entomologist Thomas Seeley says, bees have evolved to be “flying penises” for stationary plants.
The honeybee is a social insect. It lives in colonies of up to 60,000 workers—all female—a single egg-laying queen, and a few male drones, which fly out and try to mate with the queens of other colonies. Each bee communicates with its neighbors using pheromones and symbolic dances, simple signals about what to eat, when to rear more young, and what to attack, that combine to let the swarm function as a super-organism. (Their efficient orderliness has made bees a favorite metaphor for human society at least since Virgil.) Returning forager-bees strut and waggle in a figure-eight pattern the length and angle of which communicates the location of a food source relative to the sun. Other foragers fly out to gather the pollen and nectar, delivering it to younger workers who stuff it into wax combs, where the pollen is fermented into “bee bread”—protein for just-hatched bees to eat—and the nectar is transformed through repeated regurgitation into honey. Its carbohydrates tide bee colonies over through the winter.
Honey has historically been the main source of humanity’s interest in the bee. That and the wax that the bees secrete to build their hives, which was for centuries a major source of illumination, waterproofing, and lubrication. Several thousand years ago people figured out that making homes for bees in hollow logs and clay jugs was easier than hunting them in the wild, thus beginning an interspecies relationship that has been beneficial to both: Bees made honey and wax, and humans propagated the species across every continent but Antarctica. Europeans brought the honeybee to Australia, South America, and North America, where the insect spread across the continent and became such a harbinger of encroaching settlers that Native Americans called it the “white man’s fly.”
For almost as long as humans have been keeping bees, they’ve also been chauffeuring them to flowers so they could make more honey. The ancient Egyptians put hives on rafts and floated them up the Nile each spring so they would always have fresh blooms; 19th-century Americans used wagons, trains, and steamboats. Sometimes this spread hive diseases, making early migratory beekeepers into outlaws at times. “Neither ordinances or quarantines, fines or imprisonment have been sufficient to keep him from moving,” marveled an early beekeeper of the aptly named Migratory Graham, one of the first people to transport bees by rail.
For the vast majority of their history, beekeepers moved their bees in order to make more honey, not to pollinate crops. In fact, pollination itself is a phenomenon few farmers understood until relatively recently. As late as the 1880s, some farmers banished beekeepers from the their farms, believing that bees robbed pollen and killed fruit. It’s a forgivable misunderstanding. The farmers didn’t realize that the bees had evolved to be messy eaters, carrying pollen grains on their fur. And with swarms of native bumblebees, orchard bees, and feral honeybees always around, fruit happened with beekeepers or without. In a natural ecosystem, or even a small multi-crop farm, there were always enough plants in bloom at any given time to sustain a resident population of pollinators.
But when farmers began planting larger plots with one crop, the natural balance of pollination was distorted. A monoculture, as it’s called, can’t sustain all the wild insects it needs to pollinate it, because there’s nothing for the insects to eat when the main crop isn’t in bloom. Monoculture farmers noticed that their trees would flower abundantly yet produce hardly any fruit, which led to the discovery that many fruit trees are self-sterile: To produce, they need to be planted in mixed varieties, and they need insects to ferry pollen from one variety to another.
Honeybees provided a convenient solution. Whereas many bees native to North America are solitary, fly only a few hundred feet to forage, and have evolved to pollinate a single plant species, honeybees are opportunistic eaters, fly more than two miles, and live in resilient, easily transported hives. By the early 20th century, farmers were signing occasional contracts with local beekeepers to pollinate orchards. In 1918, the naturalist John Harvey Lovell concluded that “the fruit-culture of the future must be largely dependent on the domestic bee, the only agency in crossing which can be controlled by man.”
The dramatic transformation of our relationship with the honeybee, however, began in the years following World War II, as the mechanization of agriculture drastically increased the size of the nation’s farms and the use of pesticides exploded. This marked the decline of many remaining wild pollinators, and the beginning of the honeybee’s shift from a semi-domesticated producer of honey to a living tool integral to industrial agriculture. In the past several decades migratory pollination has only become a bigger portion of the beekeeping industry, surpassing revenues from honey sales sometime around 2007. The economic shift from honey to pollination was a long time coming, but two things finally tipped the balance. First came the almond boom in the Central Valley. Then the bees began to die.
In the early 2000s, Zac and others started noticing something strange about their bees. They would hang listlessly around the hive, eating nothing. Beekeepers called the phenomenon “failure to thrive.” A few years later those listless hives began to peter out and die over the winter. Beekeepers called that “fall dwindle.” The weakened colonies were requiring more feed supplements and pest treatments yet producing less honey, Zac says. “Then weak became dead and that’s when the headlines happened.”
Colony collapse disorder came to global attention in 2007. Over the preceding winter, a third of the honeybees in the country died, and died in an eerie way. They hadn’t starved in their hives or fallen to the ground stricken by pesticides. They had simply vanished, leaving only a queen and a handful of workers behind. The Rapture-esque quality of the deaths created the feeling that we’d finally done irreparable harm to nature and now the bees had up and left, damning us to a future of gruel. “Beepocalypse” was a common headline, and people circulated a bogus quote, attributed to Einstein, saying that if the honeybees went extinct, humans would follow four years later. There was talk of collapse of the global food supply.
Yet as the bees were running into trouble, the almond industry was demanding more of them. Almonds provide healthy and nonperishable—and therefore highly shippable—protein, and changing tastes at home and new markets abroad resulted in a spike in demand. Domestic consumption of almonds has grown by more than 220 percent since 2005, and Americans now eat more of them than peanuts. At the same time, almonds have become California’s most lucrative agricultural export, thanks in part to recent high demand from China. Farmers have almost doubled their almond acreage in the last 15 years. There is seemingly no limit to the crop’s expansion except, perhaps, water—and a lack of bees.
Almond growers noticed the bee die-off early, when they began struggling to !nd enough hives for their new acreage. In 2005, a group of them converged at the American Beekeeping Federation conference in Reno, Nevada, with an offer: $125 to rent the services of a single hive for the few weeks almond trees were in bloom—double the rate from the year before. “That opened eyes,” says Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper and the federation’s vice president. Beekeepers drove out from Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, Minnesota. Growers may have thought it was a one-time deal, Brandi says, but as the bees kept dying and growers kept planting, the price of hives kept going up. Hives for almond pollination now rent for between $140 and $200, depending on how many bees are in them. Zac says he will make about $3 million in revenue for his month in California, 60 percent of his earnings for the year. It’s what puts him in the black, helping pay for all the staff, transportation, housing, hardware, treatments, and feed it takes to keep the bees alive for the other 11 months. The rising price of hives is both a story of growing demand and constricting supply, and while most beekeepers say rising costs are squeezing their margins, there are some who say that, provided they don’t get hit with a bad die-off, the current situation can be very profitable. According to the USDA, in 2012, $656 million was paid in pollination fees—45 percent of it from almonds.
When colony collapse first appeared, everyone had a culprit: cell phones, Wi-Fi, genetically modified crops. More reasonably, many blamed neonicotinoids, a family of nicotine-derived insecticides that came into commercial use in the mid-1990s and are frequently applied to seeds so that the poison pervades the plant, sometimes including its pollen and nectar. (Scientists haven’t shown that neonicotinoid seed treatments kill bees at field-relevant doses, but studies do show that they can disorient the bees and weaken their immune system.) The reality of colony collapse disorder, researchers now believe, is that there is no single culprit. Bees are falling victim to several overlapping forces that Jeff Pettis, a USDA researcher, calls “the three Ps”: pesticides, poor nutrition, and pests.
For thousands of years we carried bees by raft and barge, by wagon and train, across oceans and continents, so they could make us honey and wax. Now we’ll try to carry them through the Anthropocene so they can pollinate our crops.
Pesticides can wipe out entire colonies if they hit a hive or are sprayed when bees are foraging. Even farmers who depend on pollination inadvertently kill bees, often by mixing supposedly bee-safe insecticides with other chemicals that increase their lethality, like fungicides and adjuvants, which help sprays penetrate plant leaves. A mix of fungicide and larvacide was likely behind a mass die-off last spring in the almond orchards. The current situation is better than when farmers were spraying heavily with broad-spectrum organophosphates, most beekeepers say, but the combinations that have replaced them still harm bees, and do so in ways that can be more subtle and harder to trace.
Bees can also become malnourished from foraging in monocultural conditions, as opposed to natural habitats or even cities, where parks and gardens provide diverse sources of pollen. At the Beekeeping Federation conference last winter in Baton Rouge, Pettis explained that even pollinating a crop like almonds, which provide abundant and nutritious pollen, is “like living on nothing but broccoli”—in other words, not a balanced diet. And that’s during the two weeks the crop is in bloom; before and after, the bees must rely heavily on artificial supplements, usually mixtures of brewer’s yeast, sugar, and vitamins. The feeds provide protein when natural pollen is scarce, but they aren’t yet as good as the real thing, and bees can’t live on them alone.
Weakened by pesticides and malnutrition, bees are likelier to succumb to disease, sometimes spread by a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which arrived in the U.S. from Asia in the late 1980s and quickly decimated both managed and feral bee populations. Marla Spivak, an entomologist from the University of Minnesota, put the bees’ plight in human terms: Suppose you have the flu, she said, and you’re starving, and you have to walk two miles for food, and there’s a tick the size of a rabbit battened onto your neck, and when you finally reach food you find it’s slightly poisonous. Well then, the flu finishes you off. Bees can contend with one or two of the three Ps, but when all three combine it becomes too much, and illness can deal the final blow. Sick bees leave the hive to die, a phenomenon called altruistic self-removal. This may explain the mass vanishings characteristic of colony collapse disorder.
In the first week of February last year, when most beekeepers were distributing their hives through the California orchards, many took a break to attend the Delta Bee Club’s monthly meeting at a small church in Oakdale, a quaint town northeast of Modesto. The parking lot was full of trucks bearing license plates from Utah, Idaho, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania (and a flatbed loaded with beehives destined for Chowchilla, 60 miles south, later that night). Inside, 30 or so men in practical fleeces and Carhartts sat at tables eating spaghetti and listening to Eric Mussen, California’s outgoing state apiculturist (retiring after 38 years on the job), make a sort of valedictory speech about the state of beekeeping.
Mussen, his gray hair parted to the side, began by declaring what he believes is “the most critical thing” for the future of the industry: an artificial replacement for pollen—something that’s more than just a supplement; something like the feeds we’ve been giving livestock for decades.
“Take any of the animals that we work with—dogs, cats, goldfish, cows, chickens, whatever. Stick them in a room. It won’t smell too good after a while, but we can feed them, keep them alive for a whole year,” Mussen said, speaking with an excitably professorial air. “Stick honeybees in there and give ’em the feeds we have now. How long do they last? Two months,” he said, and paused. “Two months.”
Later I ask Mussen what beekeeping with a pollen substitute would look like. He describes a sort of bee feedlot, a giant space where bees can fly around and defecate and live off ersatz pollen, getting sent out on pollination jobs when needed. As more land is given over to agriculture and development, Mussen adds, bees are rapidly running out of real flowers to feed from. “The carrying capacity is shriveling up in the U.S.,” he says, referring to the maximum population an ecosystem can sustain. By way of example he points to the expansion of crops genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, which kills weeds that bees previously would have fed on. “We’re sterilizing the Earth,” he says.
Over a million acres of grassland were converted to crops in five Midwestern states from 2006 to 2011, according to a study by South Dakota State University, a rate of habitat destruction the authors liken to tropical forest logging in Brazil and Indonesia during the late 20th century. Across the region more than 99 percent of what was originally prairie has been converted, mostly to corn and soy for animal feed, ethanol, and sweetener. Corn is pollinated by the wind; the crop doesn’t provide many nutrients for bees, but before the adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops, there were at least weeds and wildflowers in the margins of the fields. Now the entire Midwest, several beekeepers told me, has become a “corn desert.”
This has wrought devastation on most anything that used to live in the fields. Monarch butterflies no longer have milkweed for laying eggs. Birds no longer have insects to eat or prairie to shelter in. Native bees are disappearing. Honeybees at least have the benefit of beekeepers, and even they are struggling.
Zac noticed the change in 2001, when his neighbors began using Roundup Ready corn, Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant seed. “The wind never stops in North Dakota,” Zac says. “The herbicide went everywhere—on the wetlands, on the fencerows, on the road ditch, on the golf course next door. It killed all the bee forage literally overnight.” The next year the Brownings started using pollen supplements, and they’ve used more each year ever since.
Not everyone thinks a complete pollen replacement is a viable option. For one thing, it’s cheaper for beekeepers if their bees can live off natural flowers, and flowers will probably always be healthier for the bees. In 2003, when beekeepers began wintering their hives in the barren pre-almond-bloom Central Valley, they tried to feed their bees supplements, and the bees died. The beekeepers approached Gloria Hoffman, the head of the USDA bee research laboratory in Tucson, and asked for help making a better feed. She made one, but when she tried to keep bees alive on that and nothing else, those colonies declined, too. She concluded that bee nutrition isn’t just a matter of protein and vitamins; pollen has microbes that, fermented into bee bread, likely play an important role in digestion. “There’s no substitute for flowering plants,” Hoffman says, and rather than trying to invent one, we’re probably better off setting land aside and planting it with flowers.
There are efforts to do that: Last summer the USDA announced a plan to pay Midwestern farmers to plant pollinator-friendly habitat; the non-profit Project Apis m. is giving almond growers wildflower seeds to plant on the edges of their orchards (of course, California’s intense drought means that anything that isn’t irrigated dies); organizations are planting flowers along highway medians, atop old strip mines, and under powerlines, creating bee pastures on the margins. But none of these efforts is anywhere near the necessary scale yet.
Researchers are also working to make the bees themselves more resilient. Washington State University is working on a bee sperm bank to boost breeding efforts and diversify the bee population’s homogeneous gene pool; the USDA is working with commercial pollinators to breed bees capable of handling the stresses of modern agriculture; the USDA is also breeding bees for Varroa resistance; and the company Beeologics, bought by Monsanto in 2011, is working on a gene-silencing technology that would make bees’ blood deadly to mites.
In the meantime, beekeepers have been coping with the forces afflicting bees by adopting a host of new methods, from supplemental feeding to the rapid replacement of the dead. Some keepers have increased the number of times they “split” their hives—shaking some bees from a healthy colony into an empty hive and dropping in a new queen, often bought from breeders and sent through the mail in a tiny mesh box—to make up for winter losses.
All these efforts will play a role in the future of the honeybee. On one end of the spectrum you can imagine warehouses of Varroa-immune superbees plucked from an increasingly hostile landscape and kept alive for their agricultural utility. On the other end of the spectrum would be large-scale conservation, a return to smaller, weedier farms, and the adoption of less-harsh but more labor-intensive methods of pest control.
Most beekeepers I spoke with would prefer the latter but can see agriculture trending toward the former. That means a fundamental change in their lives. “We’re not beekeepers anymore, we’re bee doctors,” says one Florida man who pollinates crops in 14 states. “We’re paid to keep making beehives. They pay us to patch ’em up, send ’em out, patch ’em up, send ’em out.” As stressful and costly as the new methods are, they’re a large part of the reason the apocalyptic predictions of 2007 never came to pass. Beekeepers haven’t figured out how to stop the losses, but they’ve found a way to outrun them, for now, by multiplying their hives faster than they can die off. The motto of one business, the pollen supplement company MegaBee: Beekeeping is changing. So are we. “Honeybees aren’t going extinct,” one beekeeper told me, “they’re becoming more intensively managed livestock.” Which continues the agricultural trend—thousands of years in the making, but accelerated by modern farming—of relying entirely on a handful of chosen species and hoping we can continue to keep them alive. The system feeding humanity keeps growing, but it keeps growing more precarious.
It’s tempting to mourn beekeeping’s bucolic past and condemn wholesale the forces that have driven it to its current state, but it’s important to remember that some of those forces are also responsible for historically unprecedented bounty. Monocultures, mechanized harvesting, and even pesticides have enabled a relatively miniscule number of people to produce greater quantities of more nutritious food more cheaply than ever before. As absurd and precarious as the current system is, we wouldn’t have gotten here if each step didn’t seem logical at the time.
How long beekeepers can keep supplying agriculture with the necessary bees is an open question. Some, like Zac, say that even if pollination prices doubled, they would only be able to add a few more hives to the operation; there simply aren’t enough flowers for the bees to eat. Beekeepers who are confident that better supplements will be developed say they can keep making more bees forever—if pollination fees make it worthwhile. Until then, all the treating and feeding of the bees is piling on additional costs. Beekeeping operations are frequently going under and getting bought out by larger ones, to the point that Tim Tucker, the American Beekeeping Federation president, says, a hundred people now manage half the country’s hives. “Beekeepers are getting tired of the fight, especially those that saw better days 20 or more years ago when things were much easier,” Tucker told me. “I just had a guy last week call me who is getting out and looking to sell his bees. That happens several times a year for the past few years just with me.” Quoting secretary of agriculture Earl Butz’s instruction to farmers in the 1970s, one beekeeper said, “It’s get big or get out.”
Browning’s Honey Co. is one of the operations that got big. As small family farms gave way to large industrial ones, Zac’s father welded prongs to a 1956 Chevy, called it a forklift, and started trucking his bees to California. The almond orchards grew, and so did beekeeping operations. Brokers emerged to match the two. The Chevy became a Bobcat, the flatbed truck a Mack, and then convoys of them. And yet, Zac says, “We never had a dream that we wanted to have 25,000 hives.”
The system feeding humanity keeps growing, but it keeps growing more precarious.
Pollination season is an exhausting slog. Zac and his crew spend their days stooped over, walking from hive to hive to assess each colony’s health and replenish its food. With the bloom still days away, there’s nothing for the bees to eat. The orchard floors have been flattened with giant rolling pins and mowed so that harvest machines can later scoop up the nuts after claw machines shake them from the branches. Hungry after the long winter, the bees raid neighboring hives or, as I saw several times, fly to town and accost people drinking soda outside Freebird Burrito.
Pulling back the lid of one hive, Zac tosses in a toffee-colored protein patty, a mix of brewer’s yeast and nutritional stimulants. He leaves the lid ajar so that his cousin Mike can fill a compartment in the hive with sugar syrup pumped from an idling truck. Gashing open the wax paper wrap on another protein patty, Zac says, “A decade ago the bees stored up so much pollen, there were entire combs full.”
Still Zac is relatively fortunate. He and his brothers have longstanding deals with farmers to place bees in their fields and orchards. And they still produce a lot of honey, which, for Zac, is what makes the slog of pollination worth it. After almonds, he’ll spend the summer depositing his bees across ranches and prairies in North Dakota so they can make honey. Often the colonies grow big enough to be split twice: once after the almond work, and again in the fall in North Dakota. His favorite spots are abandoned homesteads, whose windmills creak at night when he drops off his bees, and which he finds pleasantly melancholy. “It’s always interesting to find out the story about what happened to the families,” he says. Usually it’s that they gave up farming and moved to town—another sign of the agricultural industrialization that has driven the Brownings to pollination work.
Zac and many other commercial pollinators sought refuge in North Dakota largely because the state has one of the highest rates of participation in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave infertile land fallow. That has created a lot of wild prairie for bees to forage on. But even here, in the last six years more than a million and a half acres of that prairie have given way to vast monocrop fields. Last winter, searching for new pastures to put his bees on, Zac traveled to East Texas from the Beekeeping Federation conference in Baton Rouge, but beekeepers there told him they’d lost most of their good locations to urban sprawl and cotton—another crop that is heavily sprayed with insecticides, and is increasingly Roundup Ready. “It’s the same everywhere you go,” Zac says.
The ecologist Ruth DeFries calls the last half-century of agricultural industrialization “the Big Ratchet.” It is the latest and most extreme example of a cycle of technological innovation that has allowed humanity to thrive in the face of constant ecological crises. For thousands of years people have been coming up with new ways to wring more food from nature, then running up against some ecological barrier—often a side effect of the original innovation—and engineering a way around it. Humans invented agriculture, which depleted the soil, which they replenished with animal and human manure, which allowed towns to grow, which caused septic disease, so sewers were invented, which diverted night soil from the fields, so fertilizer was invented, which made monocultures possible, which allowed pests to run rampant, so insecticides were invented; and so it went, accelerating exponentially as the population grew from a billion-and-a-half people to seven billion in the last century, more and more of them living in cities, where they’re fed by fewer people harnessing technology to manage ever larger crops. DeFries calls each innovation a ratchet, and the inevitable obstacle a hatchet. Technology ratchets up the population. Then the hatchet falls, and a new ratchet must be invented.
Migratory pollination has been a ratchet working in the background during this period of explosive growth. Monocultures distorted the natural balance of pollination, so people put honeybees on trucks, marshaling a superabundance of insects to pollinate the new superabundance of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. It was an ad hoc solution and it worked for a while, but the hatchet falls eventually. Replacing habitats with sterile and insecticide-laced monocultures takes its toll; clustering huge numbers of genetically similar bee colonies together allows pests to become more virulent. And unlike most modern hatchets, which tend to be cases of all-too-forgettable excess—dead zones from fertilizer runoff, antibiotic-resistant bacteria from factory farms—this one has a direct impact on agriculture itself. It won’t look like the catastrophes foretold in 2007. It looks like what’s already happening: farmers nervous about finding enough bees, paying beekeepers a bit more; beekeepers feeding more and dividing hives faster; maybe a slight rise in the price of almonds.
For thousands of years we carried bees by raft and barge, by wagon and train, across oceans and continents, so they could make us honey and wax. Now we’ll try to carry them through the Anthropocene so they can pollinate our crops. The old mutualism, where we make homes for bees so bees can make us honey, is turning into fraught co-dependence. We need bees on an industrial scale to fertilize our food, and the bees need us to keep them alive in an increasingly hostile industrial landscape.
This scenario takes place against a backdrop of ecological disaster, as many species that don’t have an industry dedicated to their survival face extinction. Monarch butterflies are already declining drastically. Bumblebees have been disappearing since at least the 1990s. In 2009 and 2010, researchers visited locations near Carlinville, Illinois, where 120 years ago a naturalist studiously recorded which bugs visited what flowers. They found that almost half the bee species were gone, and only saw one American bumblebee after 447 hours of observation. Many of these native bees also pollinate crops, and do so more efficiently than honeybees. As these native bees die, managed honeybees pick up the slack, and we become more reliant on a single species. “Bees aren’t a canary,” Marla Spivak told me. “They’re a mirror, telling us our agricultural system is out of whack.” She added, “We just need to let up the throttle a bit.”
When I meet up with Zac again, he’s sitting in his truck on the rim of the bluff. The bees are heading out to the orchards, and the last loads from Idaho are on their way. He had recently received a call from officials at the USDA, asking what he, as one of the major commercial pollinators in the country, thought should be the focus of future research. All his ideas involved reversing the market forces that have put bees in their current predicament. More money needs to go into conservation, he says, to stop the spread of corn and soy. If studies can show that pollination improves soy yields, maybe farmers would reduce pesticides and even leave some weeds for bees to eat. “I’m trying,” he says, “to put a value on the way things used to be.”
But looking back over his family’s history, the trajectory is clear. His great-grandfather captured wild swarms in the Snake River Valley when there was so much pasture that, Zac says wistfully, his biggest problem was finding enough boxes to put honey in. Now, his sons want to take over the family business, but, Zac says, the way things are headed, “that would be a crazy bet.”
Down the road, Zac’s brother Tom calls out above the din of forklifts and bees. A red semi is rumbling slowly down the orchard path, its bed stacked high with hives. The sun has just set. Zac’s nephew runs along the side of the truck, puffing smoke from his bellows, while another worker climbs on top of the hives, unfurling a net that has kept the insects strapped in during their journey. A cloud of bees rises into the cool evening air.
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Lead illustration by Tom Cocotos.