Every February, Brett Adee joins a caravan of semi-trucks, bound for California’s Central Valley, loaded with millions upon millions of fragile, precious cargo: honeybees. In order for the state’s almond trees to bear fruit – and thus generate an $11bn industry supplying 80% of the world’s almonds – they must be pollinated during the brief window in which the trees flower, from late February through March. And that requires an army of pollinators: some 1.8m hives of honeybees, almost the entire commercial supply in the US, drafted into big agriculture and trucked into central California from as far as the Great Plains and the east coast.
The almond enterprise is cutthroat and risky, reliant on honeybees sent not so much to work as to war, which makes the European honeybee “a keystone species for us in the United States, even though they’re not native to the US, because of the way that they’re used in agriculture”, Peter Nelson, a 30-year beekeeper, told the Guardian. Which is why Adee monitors his hives so closely – the bees are the difference between an almond crop and a bust year. And the bees face increasing risks of disaster; in Nelson’s film The Pollinators, a 90-minute documentary on commercial beekeeping and its linchpin role in the American food supply, Adee assesses a field in Kern county, California, which appears hazy and idyllic – rows of white-bursting almond trees, dotted every couple of lines or so by palettes of Adee’s hives. But up close, it’s a scene of carnage.
Piles of dead honeybees pool around each hive like splotchy puddles; Adee reports a “mass die-off”, probably from acute pesticide or fungicide poisoning. It could have been a neighbor who sprayed their trees too soon, or used a legal chemical toxic to bees without knowing. Adee’s team inspects, collects samples, runs tests – for the bees, and because hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line. “If we put the same economic value on a honeybee as cattle, we wouldn’t have a pesticide investigator out there for these kind of losses,” he says. “We’d have the FBI out there.”
The precarious state of the honeybee is not a new phenomenon, nor an understudied one, but its implication for American agriculture – and therefore America’s supply of produce in its bountiful supermarkets – is vast and undervalued by the general public. “Most of us are three or four generations off of the farm … for many people there’s not a real connection to who grows their food and how food is grown,” said Nelson. Disconnected from the massive farms which supply produce, most Americans are unaware of the honeybee’s essential role. “The farmers are using these bees essentially as an insurance policy to make sure that they have pollination,” Nelson said, “because if there isn’t pollination of something, you have no crop. It’s a necessity.”
The Pollinators follows the frenzied, relentless work of the commercial honeybees, whose biological stability is threatened by a host of interlocking factors, and the workers who ferry them across America’s ravenous agricultural expanse. These beekeepers, the “last of the cowboys” as Adee calls them, crisscross the country from bloom to bloom, lugging a cumulative 2m hives from the almond groves in California to blueberry patches in Maine to apple orchards in Virginia – some 22 moves a year, according to keeper Davey Hackenberg.
As numerous beekeepers, scientists and farmers explain, such harried movement – along with the pesticide use demanded by the market and American consumers, bee immune systems weakened from monocultural habitats, invasive mite species, and of course the exacerbating effect of climate change – has cultivated a beekeeping crisis. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 10m hives were lost worldwide – twice the normal rate – many from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious phenomenon with no known single cause in which a hive’s worker bees disappear. Where beekeepers used to expect about 5% hive losses a year, they now routinely see upwards of 30%. One survey found that commercial bee farmers lost 40% of their hives – some 50 billion bees – during the winter of 2018-2019. “People talk about the financial viability of the bee industry,” says Adee in The Pollinators. “But I think what I’m more concerned with is the biological viability of the bee industry.”
The Pollinators argues that CCD as a term masks a network of threats to the honeybee exacerbated by several interconnecting, preventable factors. “It would be nice if there was a tidy answer, like ‘bees are dying because of X,’” Sally Roy, Nelson’s wife and a producer on the film, told the Guardian. “But it’s more than one thing that’s causing the losses for bees.” Individual factors such as Varroa mites or overwork in monocultural fields would be more manageable in isolation but are compounded by a staple of American agriculture: pesticides. From the Central Valley’s toxic soup of chemicals to apple orchards’ crop-beautifying sprays, America’s agricultural industry runs on chemicals. Since 1996, farmers have shifted from a class of chemicals called organophosphates, which were dangerous for humans, to neonicotinoids, which take years to decay naturally and ravage bee health. And in a cruel irony, the chemicals stick around best in fatty substances, such as honeycombs.
America’s current pesticide model – spray everything preventively – is “kind of like taking an aspirin in the morning because you might have a headache in the afternoon”, said Nelson, “whereas a much better approach would be integrated pest management”, a more labor-intensive method that targets certain pests in limited populations as they appear. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think we can live in a world without pesticides,” he said. “But it’s how we use them and the type that we use that really makes a difference.”
While it may seem daunting to think of taking on entrenched and, as farmers testify in the film, economically necessary pesticide use, much of beekeeping and apiary science and improvement is “completely actionable”, said Nelson. “There are some global issues that we’re facing that can sometimes seem overwhelming … but with this problem, we can all do something.” He proposed a “scale of actionable things that people can do, from supporting your local beekeeper and buying local honey, support local CFAs, farmers’ markets”, to political action, such as advocating ending pesticide use on local roadsides. Even growing a pollinator garden, with a window box in cities, or not using herbicides or pesticides on your lawn – “lawns in America are essentially a giant monoculture that is everywhere,” said Nelson – can improve a local ecosystem, itself a smaller web of America’s food ecosystem dependent on strained populations of pollinators.
“You can really participate in making a change, through education, through action, through becoming a beekeeper, through gardening – all of those things are super important to this issue and really can make a difference,” said Nelson. After all, Roy added: “this film,” and the health of the honeybee, “is only important if you eat food.”