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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?

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Nordhaus doesn’t claim to know the cause of CCD but there is a subtle morality tale woven throughout “The Beekeeper’s Lament” that feints at an explanation. It begins with almond prices, which have skyrocketed in recent years; as a result, almond pollination is by far the biggest moneymaker for migratory beekeepers. Almond trees line nearly a million acres of California’s Central Valley (which produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds) and every February two-thirds of all the bees in America are trucked there for three weeks of rollicking pollination. This, keep in mind, is exactly the time of year when bees, if left to their own devices, would rather be sleeping.

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It’s this jerry-rigging of the bees’ life cycle that Nordhaus suggests might be the cause of all the bee deaths. She writes, “Almond orchards have been compared to a brothel for their remarkable capacity to transmit disease.” So bees aren’t getting enough sleep and they’re engaging in risky behavior. They’re also malnourished. Bees make honey all summer to tide them through a dormant winter, but commercial “bee guys” confiscate that honey and sell it by the barrel to honey distributors who pour it into little plastic bears and sell it in supermarkets. Those cold, groggy bees are left to nurse on cheap corn syrup – piped into their hives – instead.

“More and more research, however, has suggested that bees may be suffering from the same kind of malnutrition afflicting humans who eat processed junk food,” writes Nordhaus. “The problem is compounded by the lack of natural forage. Sprawl, monocrops, weedless gardens, flawless lawns, and a general decline in pastureland have made it hard for bees to find a suitable diversity of nectar and pollen sources.”

At the same time, Nordhaus notes that the “actual number of managed beehives in the country has held steady” since the rise of CCD. This fact makes it hard to determine just what level of crisis CCD really is, and one omission of “The Beekeeper’s Lament” is that it never clarifies the stakes involved: Is CCD a threat to our food system or is it merely an interesting scientific riddle?

The causes and consequences of CCD are hard to pin down. So is “The Beekeeper’s Lament,” in a way. It’s metaphorical and poetic, elegiac and somehow sad. The sadness pertains to the bees that drop dead by the billions every fall and to migratory beekeepers who come off as every bit as odd a lot as you might expect. But the question that lingers at the end of “The Beekeeper’s Lament” is whether that sadness also pertains to us.

Kevin Hartnett is a staff writer for The Millions.

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