Bees are trucked over great distances to pollinate crops from almonds to alfalfa, in a practice that’s bad for their health and that of native pollinators. How can we fix the system?
In some ways 32-year-old Blaž Šercelj, a cheery father of three, has always been a beekeeper. His grandfather had about 10 hives, his father 40, and bees were always around when Šercelj was a child. But he was the first to go from hobbyist to professional beekeeper. Though he studied engineering, Šercelj felt tugged by his calling, and now has around 300 commercial hives producing honey for sale.
These hives don’t stay in one place. While it’s a small country, Slovenia has three distinct climates – alpine, Mediterranean and continental – with different vegetation and different flowering times. For instance, Šercelj says that acacia trees start to flower 14 days earlier in the west than in central Slovenia, where he lives.
Thus, several times a year he and his father wait until dusk, when the bees return to their hives for the night, before closing them up and loading them onto a truck to drive two or three hours to their destination. They usually arrive by 01.00.
“If you do this properly, very smooth, the transport is very calm,” Šercelj says. It takes the bees a few hours in the morning to orient themselves to their new surroundings, where they might stay for two weeks for nectar honey, or two months for silver fir honey.
The creatures that pose the biggest threat to Šercelj’s hives aren’t bee thieves or the parasitic Varroa destructor mites. They’re bears. “This is a very strong animal, practically a beast,” is how Šercelj describes this rival for honey. He relies on electrified fences and makes noise in order to keep bears from crushing his hives, though he recognises that ultimately they need to coexist.
Bears aside, the situation Šercelj describes is almost idyllic. This is a nation of both pristine forests and bee lovers, whose government regulates trading of honeybees in order to keep the native Carniolan bees free of disease. Even the prime minister keeps bees. Thus there are plenty of pollinators. And the distances between major beekeeping sites are manageable in Slovenia – so small that Šercelj can return home to his family after setting up his travelling hives. And, of course, he’s in the business of honey, not commercial pollination for large-scale crop farming.
Still, even Slovenian bees seem to be struggling; one recent study found that Slovenian bees had among the highest winter loss rates in Europe. And for bees involved in food production on a more industrial scale across the world, the stresses of travel and exposure to pesticides can have devastating consequences. In turn, those bees can disrupt local pollinator species.
There’s a vicious cycle involving Varroa mites, poor nutrition and insecticides
Nevertheless, from apples to alfalfa, migratory beekeeping powers the production of many crops.
In Brazil, Cibele Cardoso de Castro, a plant biologist at the Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, has studied itinerant beekeepers in the state of Ceará. She notes that migrating honeybees can help with the reproduction of certain native plant species that have generalist pollination systems. But they might also crowd out the wild pollinators needed by plant species with more specialised requirements, like tomatoes or peppers. “This is very delicate stuff to affirm: honeybees can be good to native plant species, but they can impact native pollinators and consequently impact other plant species,” she says.
Migratory pollination is a small and often ad hoc market in China, where individual beekeepers are hired to pollinate plants ranging from sunflowers to strawberries. In Turkey, middle-aged beekeepers are generally the ones who travel, as young people are reluctant to spend long periods away from home. Russia, Canada, Egypt and India are among the other countries where migratory beekeeping is practised. But the epicentre remains in the US.
You probably wouldn’t recognise a bee farm in transit if you saw one on a US highway. All you would likely see is a number of boxes stacked on a tractor trailer, wrapped in netting. There wouldn’t be obvious clues as to the contents: 400+ honeybee hives, each colony home to a queen and 15,000–30,000 worker bees.
If it’s springtime, these hives could be travelling thousands of miles to the almond orchards of California’s Central Valley, joining 1.5 million other hives (and 1,600 beekeepers) in what has been dubbed “the biggest single pollination event on Earth”. About half of all honeybees in the US will be present. Farmers pay commercial beekeepers by the hive, and after five or six weeks of diligent work, the surviving bees move onto the next flowering plant species.
Such “outapiaries” developed in the US in the early 20th Century. The practice grew with the sweeping industrialisation of agriculture, and was aided by the development of road networks as well as advances in transport. (Though there were some early experiments with transporting bees by boat and bicycle, they didn’t take off.)
The system has become entrenched in the US due to factors including a catastrophic decline in wild pollinators and an increase in monoculture agriculture, especially enormous tracts of corn and soy, that depends on pesticides. Less healthy soils and less diverse food sources make for weaker pollinators, and the die-offs are accelerated when huge numbers of diseased bees are brought together to pollinate the same crop. There’s a vicious cycle involving Varroa mites, poor nutrition and insecticides, all of which weaken bees’ ability to respond to the other threats.
Intensive travel isn’t helping; these aren’t the light travellers tended by Šercelj in Slovenia. Like many humans, honeybees travelling long distances tend to experience stress and have poor diets. Bees weakened from travel may need to be fed sucrose syrup before they leave the hive and get to work. Samantha Alger, a biologist at the University of Vermont and the director of the Vermont Bee Lab, describes the staggering sight of bees unloaded from truck beds into Californian holding yards with “a huge tanker filled with syrup and then a hose coming out. They’re just going from hive to hive, giving them some supplemental nectar before they can get them out to the almonds. It doesn’t have all the nutrition and amino acids and vitamins that real flower nectar has. It’s like corn syrup or sugar water.” These hard-working bees are also more exposed to pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids now banned in the EU. All of these factors may impair bees’ disease resistance.
The scale of the problem is alarming. “We have been seeing between 33% and close to half of the colonies in the US dying every single year, which is disturbing,” says University of Maryland entomologist Samuel Ramsay in the 2019 documentary The Pollinators. “But numbers of colonies in the US have been able to hold steady because we’ve been splitting the colonies that survive, and we recoup those losses. We’re doing it because we have to, but our hope is that eventually we can stop splitting colonies – which is not a sustainable way of keeping them – and get back to a time when we had acceptable levels of loss: at 10% or lower.”
As troubling as the effects on honeybee health are, Alger is more concerned about wild pollinators. She often tells public groups that headlines screaming about nearly-extinct honeybees don’t make sense: “It’s like saying chickens are going to be endangered… the honeybee is an agricultural livestock animal.”
Better nutrition for bees on the move and longer recovery periods would lessen their exhaustion
But weak honeybees do weaken other creatures, which aren’t given the attention of livestock. “There’s a lot of stationary beekeepers who are concerned about their migratory neighbouring beekeepers coming back home and bringing pathogens with them,” says Alger. “It’s sort of the idea of sending your kids off to daycare and them getting sick and coming back and making you sick.” She and colleagues have estimated that in California’s almond orchards, “bees could theoretically share flowers with bees from nearly 56,000 other colonies”. That’s a lot of points of contact for disease transmission.
Large-scale commercial beekeepers are painfully aware of the problem, but it is so systemic, and honeybees are so badly needed to pollinate certain crops, that actually tackling the broken system remains difficult. “It’s depressing,” laughs Alger with grim humour.
But there are some glimmers of hope when it comes to ways to fix it.
In January, the California Almond Board announced a five-point plan to improve honeybee health. This primarily involves supporting other organisations to, for instance, encourage farmers to plant bee pastures, and digitally map the locations of beehives for improved pest control. While it’s too early to say whether this will have much of an impact, some of the practices most urgently needed to improve pollinator health won’t increase almond industry profits. (It’s important to keep this in perspective: plant-based milks are still more sustainable than dairy, so you don’t need to switch back just yet.)
From a beekeeping perspective, better nutrition for bees on the move and longer recovery periods would lessen their exhaustion. Light therapy might help counteract the effects of pesticide exposure.
Ordinary people also have some role to play. “Consumer choices towards more seasonal food and local food would be great,” says Alger. “It’s hard because these huge monocultures exist because they make food so cheap and that’s what consumers want.” Where possible, purchasing more organic food and food produced using regenerative farming practices, with healthier soils, will reduce chemical use.
So will changing expectations around the appearance of food. “A consumer wants a perfectly beautiful bright red huge apple, and a lot of these chemicals that are used will ensure that we get the fruit that visually are appealing,” she says.
Consumer education needs to sit alongside education of amateur beekeepers. “If you want to help bees, you’re not going to do so by being a beekeeper,” Alger cautions, though she keeps bees herself and recognises the appeal. That’s because wild bees need the most help, rather than the domesticated honeybees managed by beekeepers. “It’s like wanting to do something for bird conservation and becoming a chicken farmer.”
Rather than taking up beekeeping, those who want to help pollinators could reduce the use of chemicals in home gardens, make food choices that are environmentally healthier, and pressure policymakers to take more systemic steps, such as restricting neonicotinoids. For diehard hobbyist beekeepers, knowledge of proper disease control and honeybee management is crucial to ensuring their domesticated bees don’t make things worse for wild species.
More generally, “you need to have this natural diversity,” beekeeper Šercelj insists. That means more diversity of pollinators, and of the food sources they depend on. Planting wildflowers encourages native pollinators – though tiny wildflower strips around gargantuan plantations will only ever act as the smallest of plasters.
The world’s food supply depends on healthy bees. The painful truth is that to preserve them, we’ll have to make choices that increase the quality – but also the cost – of food.
Image credits: Getty Images, Peter Nelson
This article is part of Follow the Food, a series investigating how agriculture is responding to environmental challenges. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.