Wednesday, January 14, 2015

JOSH DZIEZA - Save the Honeybee, Sterilize the Earth

Monoculture, agriculture and modernity. A fascinating account of the consequences of technical intervention in nature.

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...

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. “

A decade ago, people started panicking about the collapse of the honeybee population and the crash of our food supply. But today there are more honeybees than there were then. We have engineered our way to a frenzied and precarious new normal.

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.” read more: