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The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

Our bees are dying in apocalyptic numbers. What does it mean to us?

By Kevin Hartnett / May 26, 2011

The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America By Hannah Nordhaus HarperCollins 336 pp.

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Bees are amazing. That’s the first reason to read The Beekeeper’s Lament, journalist Hannah Nordhaus’s rewarding account of migratory beekeeping and the mysterious scourge stalking the domestic bee population.

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For the past week I’ve been telling everyone I’ve met stories from the miraculous lives of bees, like this one about the queen bee: Did you know that she makes only one flight her entire life, when she’s a few days old, and that it’s out among the swarms of male drones where she intertwines with as many as she can before returning to her colony carrying all the sperm she’ll ever need over the course of a reproductive lifetime in which she’ll lay hundreds of thousands of eggs? If you don’t relish the idea of retelling the queen’s epic romp to your mother-in-law, friends in the park, and strangers on the train, then maybe “The Beekeeper’s Lament” is not for you.

But not everything is wonder and awe in the bee world. Migratory beekeeping is big business in America. “Without the itinerant bee and the migratory beekeeper, we would have to forsake one in every three bites of each summer’s harvest,” the author writes. Monoculture makes food cheap and abundant and it also makes migratory beekeeping necessary. “Have bees, will travel” could be the motto of John Miller, the migratory beekeeper at the heart of Nordhaus’s book.

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Every February Miller loads his 10,000 hives and half a billion bees onto tractor trailers for delivery to the almond orchards of California, or the orange groves of Florida, or anywhere where the native bee population isn’t large enough to keep pace with agribusiness pollination needs.

The essential role that bees play in food production makes it all the more troubling that in recent years bees have been dying in apocalyptic numbers for reasons no one can explain. Catastrophic death is nothing new to bees. They’re preyed on by foulbrood, varroa mites, tracheal mites, wax moths, fire ants, and cold weather. By the time Nordhaus finishes detailing all of the ways that mass death descends on bees it seems a miracle that there are any left at all.

The current menace is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It’s a now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t type of plague: Bees seem just to up and disappear one day, leaving behind a healthy queen and a hive full of honey and no obvious clues about where they went. CCD can wipe out half a country’s bee population in a season, and theories abound as to its cause. Mites, viruses, and pesticides have all been implicated. The most sensational accusations concern cellphone towers, which, the theory goes, scramble bees’ internal navigation systems. Nordhaus takes a dim view of this last hypothesis, pointing out that bees have been dying en masse in plenty of remote places where you can’t get enough signal to send a text message, let alone make a phone call.


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