A decade ago, people started panicking about the collapse of the honeybee population and the crash of our food supply. But today there are more honeybees than there were then. We have engineered our way to a frenzied and precarious new normal.Josh Dzieza
To drive through California's Central Valley is to witness farming on a baffling scale. For hundreds of miles along either side of Highway 99—which splits the valley from the college town of Chico in the north to the sprawling, boxy city of Bakersfield in the south—are orderly corridors of grapevines and cherry trees, followed by flat expanses of yams, followed by fields of carrots and the gigantic harvesters that yank them from the ground by the thousands. Dwarfing all these crops, however, are row after row of snaggly black-limbed almond trees, punctuated occasionally by monolithic towers where the nuts are shelled. In recent years, these almond groves have grown to cover almost a million acres; they now produce four-fifths of all the almonds in the world.
The Central Valley is a paradoxical place, both desolate and tremendously fertile. As Joan Didion, a native of the region, wrote in 1965, the towns there “hint at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins,” yet “U.S. 99 in fact passes through the richest and most intensely cultivated agricultural region in the world, a giant outdoor hothouse with a billion-dollar crop.” Generations of farmers have transformed this arid and flat valley into a machine that produces more than a third of the vegetables in the United States and nearly two-thirds of the fruits and nuts. To keep running, it must be fed with tremendous quantities of fertilizer, flooded with water pumped from deep underground or diverted from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, doused with insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and harvested by an arsenal of lumbering machinery. But for the system to work, it also needs bees.