Today the honeybee is a migrant agricultural machine. One third of our food traces its path back to a pollinated plant, which means bees are responsible for far more of our food than honey. The $15 billion agriculture industry dwarfs the $150 million honey market. The trucking of honeybees to pollinate America's crops is the largest human-driven (literally) migration of insects.
We talk about honeybees a lot these days, mostly about their death. Since 2005, an average of 33 percent of all honeybee colonies in the United States have been dying every winter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Colonies routinely collapse, so frequently that there's an annual colony death report. As Jeff Pettis, a USDA official, said in a 2013 report on the health of honeybees, “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster.”
Last summer, the White House set up a pollinator task force to figure out why the bees are dying. Pesticides that embed themselves deep in a plant, neonicotinoids, are the latest culprit. Another long-range study of over 800 scientific papers from two decades said that neonicotinoids are an unambiguous threat to honeybees, birds, and worms. Still, nobody is certain that there is one single factor. We don't know whether the death is because of pesticides, mites, global warming, loss of wild habitat, viruses, other invasive bees, or a combination of many forces. Whatever it is, nine winters of death and inexplicable disappearances has created a frenzied market among farmers and beekeepers. People want more rented beehives, packaged bees, and airmailed queens (UPS Next Day).
Over 4,000 different kinds of bees are indigenous to this continent. The honeybee isn't one of them. When the settlers came to the continent in the 17th century, they brought the dark-colored German black bee. But these ill-tempered bees often succumbed to European foulbrood, a bacterial disease that killed their larvae. Word got around of an Italian honeybee, which was gentler and more resistant to the bacterial disease. They were lighter colored and thought to be more beautiful than and superior to all other bees. By 1860, the first Italian honeybees entered the country. L. L. Langstroth, credited with inventing and popularizing the movable beehive, was convinced of the Italian bee's prowess. “She is the ne plus ultra in beauty, good nature, industry and ability to defend herself,” he wrote in the American Bee Journal in 1867. Over the next 80 years, the country steadily changed its stock to hives of pure Italian honeybees. And since the decades after the World Wars, honeybees have been increasingly harnessed as a pollinator.
The link between the honeybee and the almond crop has become an established part of American agricultural folklore. How many of the world's almonds come from California? Four out of every five. How many hives to an acre of almonds? Two. How many acres? Eight-hundred-forty-thousand, an area larger than Rhode Island. How many almonds does that yield? 2.1 billion pounds of them.