Sunday, February 10, 2019

Migratory Labor.

You probably don’t know it, but right now we are at about the height of bee rental season.

(I wish that as a writer I had the Hemingway-esque ability to simply stop writing this very second and leave that sentenced to dangle out there in the breeze. For sale: my sense of brevity, never used.)

The busiest time for gainfully employed rental bees is February and March because that is when almond trees in California need to be pollinated and that is such a herculean endeavor that it requires the work of about half the rental bees in the United States. No other crop is quite as dependent on migratory bee labor as almonds, though virtually all crops grown in America are dependent on our airborne pollinators to one degree or another.

Just to be clear, yes, we are talking about bees the insects and stars of the 2007 Dreamworks Animation hit Bee Movie. Now that we have that cleared up, you are likely wondering, “But don’t bees just … pollinate stuff, naturally? Isn’t that just something that they WANT to do? And are we … actually paying them? How do you even pay a bee? The Cash App? I mean, where would they even keep money? It’s not like they have pockets …”

So that is a lot of questions. Let’s try to get them answered for you.

First, if bees use the Cash App, they have kept that a secret. Second, while bees do not have pockets, they do have very sticky legs and if they were into passing fiat currency back and forth between them, that is probably how they would hang onto it. Third, yes you are correct that bees do naturally want to fly around from flower to flower, but they do not do that in order to pollinate them, they do that because they are collecting nectar and pollen to take back to their hive, the fact that some plants get pollinated in the process is 100% an accident. Bees are not pollinators because they’re doing anybody a favor, bees are pollinators because they have sticky legs.

This next part is going to be slightly larger in scope and not about bees: we have been culturally programmed to think that there is a natural world and a human-made world. The human-made world is, by way of example, Manhattan. Concrete, steel, glass, subways, asphalt, buildings that block out the sun, really good bagels, etc. The natural world is, say, Nebraska. Fields of green, amber grain waving in the wind, tall stalks of corn, terrible bagels, etc.

However, before people got to Nebraska, it did not look anything like that. Just because organic things are growing out of dirt does not mean that something “natural” is going on; we have engineered that land to within an inch of its life and occasionally even closer. The cornfields of Nebraska are exactly as human-made as anything in Manhattan. The simple presence of plants does not a natural world make.

Now let’s zoom up up up into the air high above Nebraska and let’s point our noses out west and glide over the wide dry Colorado Basin, we look down at the Great Salt Lake glittering in the rocky country below us, we zip up above Nevada, sail over the tall Sierra Nevada Mountains capped in white blankets of snow, and now we begin to descend down into the long tan center of California where only about 800,000 acres of trees produce 84% of the almonds in the world. As we drift down out of the air, our feet touch down in an almond orchard. Lines of relatively short, compact trees are planted in perfectly straight rows almost always 21 or 22 feet apart.

Standing in this orchard, admiring the precise spacing of the trees and the rows, you are reminded of the long and straight and grid of streets and avenues of Midtown Manhattan. Cities are also a thing humans have learned to grow, but we do not confuse them with the natural world.

In a good year, a pound of almonds can sell for as much as $4.00 and in a good year the almond industry is worth about 22 billion dollars. The entire NFL is only worth about 13 billion dollars.

Almond production is big business and it all depends on our busy little friends the bees. Understanding now that these orchards are just as planned and controlled as city streets, it would be folly for the farmers to rely on the size and enthusiasm of the local bee population to get all these trees pollinated. In fact, honey bees are the best commercial pollinators out there and they aren’t even native to the western hemisphere. Enter the rental bee.

One of the best place to raise bees on a commercial scale is Florida, this is largely due to the climate and because bees just love Epcot Center. Farmers all over the country will pay to rent bee hives (apple farmers in Pennsylvania, pumpkin farmers in Illinois and Michigan, etc), but every year the main event is almond pollination season out in California. Every winter hundreds of semi-trailer trucks in Florida are loaded up with boxes of bees (one box is a hive) and then a madcap insect Cannonball Run ensues as long-haul truckers haul ass out to the west coast. It generally takes two hives of bees to pollinate an acre of almonds. One hive contains around 16,000 bees. A standard semi-truck can transport 450 hives. That is about 7,200,000 bees per truckload.

Again, for effect: SEVEN MILLION TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND BEES! Take a moment to imagine what that sounds like.

The boxes of bees are generally unloaded at night and quickly placed into the orchards before sunrise because bees don’t like to fly at night. In the morning the first of the forager bees will begin to cautiously buzz out of their boxes and sniff around and pretty soon they discover that at the end of their harrowing cross country road trip, they have arrived in the promised land; more nectar and pollen surrounds them than the colony could ever need. The bees buzz out on their collection runs and in the process accidentally pollinate nearly a million acres of almond trees, keeping about 100,000 people employed and, late in the summer, the almond growers of California will harvest somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.2 billion pounds of shelled almonds.

But it isn’t just about almonds. Rental bees are used to pollinated grapes, tomatoes, onions, cotton, eggplant, zucchini, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, boysenberries, oranges, nectarines, pears, pomegranates, peaches, plums, apricots, avocados, alfalfa, apples, sunflowers, fennel, carrots, limes, watermelons, caraway, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, cashews, and celery, just to name a few.

Bees are very busy and very very important to everyone and everything we do because we can’t do much if we are starving to death.

In 2018, US beekeepers reported that up to 40% of their bees had died in the year prior, an increase of more than 30% over the year prior. For more than a decade American bees have been dying at rates that challenge the continued sustainability of the bee population. This is a condition referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The bees do not so much die, as loose their ability to find their way back to the hive and then they die essentially of exposure. Without the worker bees, the queen can’t survive and reproduce and the colony simply dies out.

There is ferocious international argument about what causes CCD, though most European agencies are comfortable pointing to neonicotinoid insecticides and have actually ban them across the entire EU. At this moment there is no such ban in the US, or in China where Colony Collapse Disorder has been so severe in some rural areas that it has become cheaper to pay human day labors to apply pollen using brushes than it is to rent a colony of honey bees. That is not a joke.

The rental bees of America will likely stay busy as long as there are enough of them to keep shipping around the country by the truckload. They can also be mailed through the Postal Service, though if you showed up at your local post office with 7,200,000 honey bees, the USPS would just load them up on a semi-truck anyway. On the off chance you ever need honey bees delivered overnight, the Postal Service will ship them by air, but only a queen and up to 8 of her attendant bees. In that way, ironically, flight becomes not a viable means of travel for the humble workaday rental bee.


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