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Bitter Honey: A Political Ecology of Honey Bee Declines


This dissertation examines the relationship between commercial beekeepers and the California almond industry to better understand the drivers behind honey bee declines and honey bee (Apis mellifera) vulnerability. Much of the current scholarship on honey bee declines addresses ecological drivers such as pesticides, parasites, and disease. Drawing on critical social theory and the tools of political ecology, this work contextualizes these drivers, and demonstrates that federal and state policies, beekeeper and almond industry management practices, and land use change have played important roles in shaping bee health.

Nearly all almond varieties are reliant on honey bee pollination and require approximately two colonies per acre each February. Since the mid-1980s, the almond industry has tripled its acreage from 400,000 acres to 1.2 million acres, and almonds have become one of the top agricultural exports in California. At the same time, beekeepers have struggled with annual colony losses each year as bees have become increasingly vulnerable to parasitic Varroa mites, pesticides, and land use changes that reduce floral resources. How have beekeepers been able to pollinate this ever-increasing acreage with a decreasing number of colonies nationwide? And how has honey bee health suffered as a consequence? These are the primary puzzles motivating this research.

I argue that beekeepers were able to pollinate for the almond industry with a diminishing number of colonies for two reasons. First, an increasing percentage of the nation’s beekeepers migrated to pollinate almond bloom, and second, beekeepers industrialized bee production to provide larger colonies for almond pollination. In addition, I argue that producing bees industrially for the almond industry, rather than for honey production, has reconfigured the production of honey bees and contributed to honey bee vulnerability.

Bitter Honey is thus a double entendre, with both meanings applicable to the stories told in this dissertation. Materially, it refers to the acrid honey that bees produce during almond bloom, a varietal that beekeepers typically cannot sell. Symbolically, it alludes to the tenuous and at times fraught alliance between the two industries; one where beekeepers struggle to produce an ever-increasing number of bees in the middle of winter, growers increasingly grumble about the high cost of pollination fees, and bees suffer the consequences of industrialized production for commercial agriculture.

But it is not only the industrial production of bees for almond pollination that contributes to honey bee vulnerability. Bees can also be exposed to acutely and sublethally toxic agrochemicals while in almond orchards. This is in part because EPA pesticide labeling requirements produce ignorance about bee-toxic agrochemicals. I introduce the terms ‘regulatory disengagement’ and ‘ignorance loops’ to describe how beekeepers disengage from regulatory processes that document bee kills.

I also build on theories of access and exclusion, to explain how honey bee vulnerability is perpetuated through lost access to forage, in part due to the neonicotinoid insecticides used on corn and soy in the Midwest. I use the term “toxic exclusion” to describe how pesticide use, in particular, excludes bees and beekeepers from the forage they need to produce honey.

Despite the challenges of pollinating for the almond industry, many beekeepers feel an economic imperative to do so as forage for honey production diminishes across the U.S. and cheap honey imports keep the price of honey low. By making honey production increasingly unviable, these trends incentivize beekeepers to shift their operations towards almond pollination, further cementing the U.S. beekeeping industry's dependence on the almond industry.

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