In the past five years, almond milk consumption in the United States has exploded over 250 percent. The lower-calorie, vegan milk alternative is a staple in grocery stores and coffee shops across the country now, but its booming popularity comes at a heavy environmental cost. According to a new report from the Guardian this week, the titanic and growing demands of the California almond industry are placing a huge strain on the hives of bees used to pollinate their orchards, wiping out billions of honeybees in a matter of months.
“My yard is currently filled with stacks of empty bee boxes that used to contain healthy hives,” Dennis Arp, a commercial beekeeper, told the Guardian. Like many of his peers, nearly half of Arp’s income comes from renting out his hives to pollinate almonds. But now, he says, he loses 30 percent or more of his bees a year, a number that’s on par for many beekeepers in the U.S. One survey of commercial beekeepers found that 50 billion honeybees were wiped out in just a few months during the winter of 2018–19.
The high mortality rate among bees who pollinate almonds, beekeepers believe, is due in part to the enormous quantities of pesticides used on almonds — far more than any other crop in California, whose Central Valley region is responsible for more than 80 percent of the world’s almond supply. What’s more, almond pollination is especially demanding for bees, because they need to wake up from their annual period of winter dormancy one to two months earlier than usual to begin. Then, once they start, massive numbers of bees are concentrated in small geographic areas, making it easier for diseases to spread among them.
As Patrick Pynes, an organic beekeeper who teaches environmental studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, told the Guardian, “The bees in the almond groves are being exploited and disrespected. They are in severe decline because our human relationship to them has become so destructive.”
In order to improve the pollination process, groups have launched programs to help protect bees and signal to consumers which products have been made with “bee-friendly” methods. The nonprofit “Bee Better,” for instance, partners with almond growers to increase biodiversity for bees in their groves by planting wildflowers, mustard, and clover between the rows of almond trees.
Still, even the most bee-friendly almond groves have a heavy environmental footprint. Almonds are an especially thirsty crop. As Mother Jones reported back in 2014, it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond, an astounding demand in a regularly drought-stricken state.
Maybe try out oat milk for a while instead?