Their fate is tied to that of bees, which aren't doing too great either.
The varroa mite may be minuscule, but it has an outsized impact on one of America's favorite healthy snack foods – almonds. The tiny parasite, which first arrived in Florida in the 1980s, has become a serious threat because it infests and kills the bees that are needed to pollinate almond blooms in the springtime. With an outbreak of varroa mites, there won't be enough bees, and the almond crop will suffer.
As one bee expert from Oregon State University told NPR, major bee losses were predicted for this year because of these mites. Ramesh Sigili said,
"It's a very lethal parasite on honey bees. It causes significant damage not only to the bee, but to the entire colony. A colony might be decimated in months if this varroa mite isn't taken care of."
The mites enter the hive and burrow into the cells where baby bees are reared. It lays eggs on top of the baby's body and raises its own young on top, eventually (quite literally) sucking the life out of the bee's body.
It's yet another challenge faced by both beekeepers and almond farmers who have an interesting symbiotic relationship themselves. The almond bloom takes place in California's Central Valley every February and, as demand for almonds has grown, the number of trees needing to be pollinated in this fairly short window of time has increased too.
Almond farmers import bees from all over the country. They're shipped in hives from Florida and New York and placed in almond orchards to begin their work. Paige Embry explains in the Huffington Post how the bees' natural behavior is manipulated to allow for pollination:
"Each January, the sluggish bees are prodded into action much earlier than what would be their normal routine. They are fed substitutes for their natural foods of pollen and nectar so they will quickly repopulate the hive to be ready for almonds. They are then loaded onto trucks and shipped across the country, plopped in an empty field and fed more substitute food while they wait for almonds to bloom."
It's a huge income generator for beekeepers, who can make up to a third of their annual salary during this season; and it's a necessity for the almond farmers, who are constantly scrambling for bee colonies.
The problem, though, is that there never seem to be enough bees to go around. The sensitive pollinators have been harmed by pesticides, loss of wildflowers, poor nutrition, climate change, and viruses; but NPR says that the varroa mite is this year's greatest challenge.
Fortunately, some solutions are in the works. Growers are beginning to realize that practices such as heavy pesticide application to almond trees is a form of self-sabotage and are rethinking their approach, e.g. planting alternative forage for bees in the surrounding areas.
Scientists are working on genetically modifying a varroa mite-resistant honeybee and developing a 'blue orchard bee' that could possibly be a replacement for the honeybee someday.
Finally, the Almond Board is assessing whether it could change the standard number of bee colonies released per acre of almonds, which has doubled in recent decades. This could "ease the pressure on embattled beekeepers to keep up with the surging almonds" (via NPR).
So, the next time you're munching on a handful of crunchy almonds, think about all the work that has gone into creating them and consider yourself darn lucky to have some in your hand. Unless we clean up our agricultural act, future generations might not know the wonders of almonds.