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Book Review: The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honeybees Help Feed America by Hannah Nordhaus

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I was sitting on a terrace in Burgundy, watching a dozen honeybees bustling amid the lavender bushes, when I decided that The Beekeeper’s Lament had to be the next book to come out of the “to read” pile. While the hills of the Morvan National Park, with a mixture of forests and pasture lands, often still divided by hedges, bear little resemblance to the extensive, pesticide-soaked monocultures that characterise American agriculture. But now bees are in trouble everywhere around the globe, and it is a problem for all of us. Indeed, that’s partly why I planted those lavender bushes.

The problem is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – at least that is the latest, it becomes clear, of a long line of problems that have been haunting beekeepers. The most commonly suggested cause, and certainly still very much in the frame, are neonicotinoid insecticides – used on more than 150 different crops, and in pet flea collars. Genetically modified corn, mobile phone masts, and many other causes have also been suggested. Often, also, traditional pests and diseases of bees – the most destructive of which is the varoa mite – have also been blamed. As Nordhaus amusingly notes, it’s also been claimed as an early sign of Judgement Day – those industrious bees being the first to rise to heaven.

But the explanation that seems to be gaining increasing traction is more complex. Nordhaus notes that CCD seems to share with HIV/AIDS the fact that the condition sees otherwise healthy hives fall prey to conditions laid usually resist — something is weakening the bees. This is not thought to be one single infective agent or other single cause, but fact that these are simply being worked too hard, moved around too much, exposed to too many pesticides, even in tiny doses, facing too difficult weather conditions. But above all, Nordhaus suggests, bees are being fed too limited diet – “suffering from the same kind of bad nutrition afflicting humans who eat processed junk food. … Sprawl, mono crops, flawless lawns, weedless gardens, and a general decline in pasture land of make hard for bees to find a suitable diversity of nectar and pollen sources. Bees, it turns out, need natural places.” (And bats, which have ecological similarities to be bees, also suffering hugely — particularly from mysterious “white nose syndrome”.)

One of the things this book makes clear is just how complex and sophisticated bees are. Here’s Nordhaus’s accounts of the production of a pound of honey. “The 50,000 or 80,000 bees who live together in a hive at the height of summer will travel a collective 55,000 miles and visit more than 2 million flowers. … One worker will visit 50 to 100 flowers on each trip from the hive, in the process collecting and dispersing pollen from flower to flower, allowing the plants it touches to reproduce.” 

Yet American beekeepers are frequently paid less than the cost production for their honey, and what is sold as honey can be up to 80% corn syrup. Regulation has been judged to be a low priority. And here’s a warning: imports of Chinese honey were banned in 2002, as result of antibiotic contamination, yet curiously after that the top 12 honey-exporting countries now export more than total home production. Few checks are made.

A lot of their income is built around the Californian almond industry, which has around 25,000 blossoms that tree, 135 trees to an acre, and if those blossoms are to turn into a highly profitable almonds, needs to be pollinated by bees. Growers seek up to two colonies per acre at flowering time. It is described as “the largest managed pollination event in the world”.

To achieve the numbers of bees required, keepers shift their hives long distances, feed them on artificial feeds, and force them to wake up when they should still be on a winter break. This is the life that Nordhaus recounts: “tthe bees work all summer, take a brief nap, then start summer again in February, going from complete dormancy to white-hot stimulation in the almonds, then to a nectarless post-bloom desert and, after a brief ride in the back of the huge truck, to the apple bloom, and then to the windswept northern prairies to wake the clover flow to begin. This is a lot of stimulation and dearth, and at some point all of those conflicting signals may be disruptive to the super organism of the hive. Farmers expect bees to function like yet another farm machine … But these are living things, with short life spans to begin with – about six weeks from lava to winged maturity to senescence. Riding in trucks and eating fake flowers and living in a constant state of natural or artificial peak bloom can take it out of a bee. … And then of course there’s the danger of contagion – the fact that, for the six-week period when nearly every commercial hive n the country has been shipped to California … pests and pathogens from one region hop with ease onto still untainted bees from the rest of the country.”

Beyond the horrors of its agriculture, I learnt that there is a very good reason why honey bees are struggling more in America than possibly anywhere else — they are not native to North America. They first came the colonists in about 1620, but found the environment to their liking and spread across the Great Plains at a steady rate without human intervention. Nordhaus quotes Thomas Jefferson: “the Indians call them ‘the white man’s fly’, and consider their approach is indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites.”

In asides scattered through the book, I learnt a great deal about the history of the honey bee. It is reckoned to have begun pollinating flowering plants around 100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous, when the number of plant species grew more than sevenfold. They aren’t the best pollinators going, that honour belonging to blue orchard bees, but they are solitary animals, and can expand the population only eight times in the year. Domesticated for at least 3000 years, ancient Egyptians moved the colonies by boat up and down the Nile.

So there’s lot of useful and interesting information in The Beekeeper’s Lament, and I’m glad that I’ve read it, but I did also find it should quite irritating. Nordhaus makes a heavy-handed attempt to personalise the tale, building it around the life of one huge industry figure, John Miller, who has an awful lot of bee hives. She’s obviously fascinated by him; I found him quite irritating. I often felt like saying “forget him, get on with the bees.”

I also found her approach frustrating, in that while the tale she is telling makes it clear that this extensive monoculture is a system on its deathbed, it is beyond her to imagine anything else. She comes across one organic farmer who was arguing the return to smaller, mixed, more ecologically balanced farms, but dismisses that in a sentence is economically undoable. The fact that she has already made clear, that the bees, so vital to so much of our agricultural production, clearly can’t keep going this way is just skipped over.

So it is that The Beekeeper’s Lament in fact tells more than its author probably recognised. America knows that it has a problem; America has yet to grasp that it cannot continue as on its current path of ecological destruction.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • rolame

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