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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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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