Getting Those Bees Back to the Garden


Johnny, of the superb blog Granola Shotgun sent me these photos he shot near Bakersfield, California. They show some of the millions of hives that are trucked into the Central Valley at this time of year to pollinate almonds.


Somehow the press never questions the practices of these industrial beekeepers and the role these practices play in the overall health of bees. This is not even to mention the profligate use of water to grow almonds.


Johnny said that these beehives reminded him of Stalinist apartment blocks he photographed on a recent trip to the Ukraine.

I don’t intend this to be an editorial against the Langstroth hive (I think you can use a Langstroth responsibly but certainly not in the concentrations seen in these pictures). Rather, it’s interesting to see how a reductionist approach to bees and people leads to similar outcomes.

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  1. From what I’ve read the past two years about drought in California and the demise of many, many almond orchards, I’m surprised there are still almond trees left to need pollinating.

    One particular problem with moving hives from orchard to orchard is that bees pickup diseases that they transfer to other orchards, along with killing their own colonies. The poor bees are innocent victims.

  2. Why is it recklessly wasteful to use water to grow almonds? Is it irresponsible because of the amount of water the trees use? Because the pictured trees are in Bakersfield?
    Between growing more lawn in the desert and growing almonds I feel better about the almonds.

    Zaiger Genetics (breeder of the delicious Spice-Z necta-plum) has self-fertile almond varieties with the potential to take honeybees out of almond production. Change takes time. You may get your wish with regard to bees. Water is going to stay part of almond growing for the foreseeable future.

    My garden hive died just before winter. I’ve got a new package on order. I’m going to try going foundation-less and see if the bees fair any better.

    • I consider the fact that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow just ONE almond as incredibly wasteful.

  3. Ryan,

    This is Johnny. I took the photos. I have a few bee hives on my roof in the city so I know a little bit about bees. I’m not at all against growing almonds in Bakersfield. Almonds are a high value dry weather crop that are completely appropriate for the Central Valley. I much prefer almond orchards than cotton or other low value water hungry crops in the desert. So we’re basically in agreement here. But…

    My concern is the mass production and mono-cropping of 700,000+ acres of just one item. Bees are brought in from other parts of the country for a few weeks, then sent off to Florida or wherever for the next industrial mono-crop. Industrial agriculture demands economies of scale and vertical integration from fields to supermarket shelves. I would prefer a system of far more diversified smaller scale agriculture where each small farm had a permanent year round population of bees that foraged a wide variety of productive crops throughout the year.

    I understand that this is no longer an economically viable option for most farmers so I will not impose my view on anyone. Instead, I anticipate a continued decline of the commercial ag-based honey bee population, the introduction of self-pollinating varieties of industrial crops (as you mentioned), and an eventual blight or infestation as a result of the mono-crops. Nature eventually gets her way.

    The question is… how do we respond?

    – Johnny

    • Nature always gets her way and our shortsighted view of production over sustainability will be the end of life as we know it/have created it.

  4. I share the vision of smaller production scales, a breakup of monoculture, and native hedgerows that support a local year-round pollinator population. Probably wouldn’t take more than 5% of the land or so to do this, so I suspect it will be a cash-positive decision for growers sooner or later. They need to pay $$ to get those bees there.

    Somewhat off topic (but only somewhat): I’d to call out the casual travel reference (to the Ukraine) in this post. All this casual and unmindful flying by the global rich is a huge contributor to our predicament, both in terms of CO2 emissions and in terms of the mindset.

  5. About flying…

    I agree with you that flying is environmentally destructive and most of the trips people take are entirely unnecessary. You could say the same about eating meat. Or having a lush green lawn in the desert. Or driving to work every morning. Or living in a 4,000 square foot home when you could comfortably manage with 800… Getting people to change these things voluntarily is hard. Really really really hard. When your boss tells you to go to Kiev for a two week business trip – you go. When your best friend gets married in Philly – you go. When your grandma in Miami is sick – you go. You don’t have to, but you do.

    You know what would stop people from flying, and eating meat, and having a lush green lawn in the desert, and driving constantly, and living in big houses? Money. When these things become too expensive people will pull back. I believe that day is coming – for some sooner than others. In the meantime, it’s hard to get folks to change.

  6. Amazing how ignorant people are. let’s see! worker bees live only 6-8 weeks in the spring and summer and drones are kicked out and die in the fall. This means, every single bee in a colony dies within year’s time accepting the queen. As such to consider bee ethics properly we need to realize what we are talking about. What we are really wanting is to sustain healthy colonies from year not increase worker bees beyond their normal healthy life span. When we leave them holed up all winter, the chances are greater that the colony will die from disease, weather, or starvation. As such, it is the morally sound thing to transport colonies to warmer climates when possible. I shipped colonies to California in November and I can tell you from personal experience, they are much healthier and thrive. And, when the almond bloom comes, they are simply loving life, the colonies build up and want to do their natural thing, make more colonies. I recall being at a beekeepers club when another ignorant comment came popping out of guys mouth, “Never buy bees from a commercial beekeeper as they are diseased. You should only buy packaged bees”. Rather than embarrass him I just kept silent. The fact is, honey bees build ups so well in the Almonds that this is exactly where packaged bees come from in spring that provide backyard beekeepers an opportunity to keep bees.

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