HONEYBEES ARE LIKE STARLINGS and chickens and thistles and wheat; they do not belong here in North America. Sure, they have been here, by way of Europe, since 1620, but their origins are African, western Asian, and southeast European — criteria by which many of us also lack native legitimacy. In The Beekeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America, Hannah Nordhaus reminds us that honeybees are not indigenous wildlife that have been gingerly tamed, or whose natural proclivities we tweak and observe. Instead, they are more like miniature cattle, which are charming in small numbers as a backyard hobby, but when used commercially can lead to stench and group exhaustion.
The Beekeeper's Lament is not only about bees, or the people who make a living off of them, fascinating as both of these subjects are. It's about the dying of rural America, the way we grow and sell our food, the reason people take risks, and, ultimately, about loving, as Nordhaus puts it,
something that can't love you back, that is just as happy to hurt you, that lives without concern for its keeper or his profit margins or his pride, and that dies with astonishing indiscretion — that simply does what it was born to do.
It is a poignant and keenly observed narrative of almond orchards and a beekeeper's Faustian bargain. And the story is particularly Californian.
Honeybees seem innocent enough, single-mindedly romantic even, as they visit beautiful flowers and turn pollen into something delicious for both humans and Pooh bears alike. But, historically, they have a dark side. Having escaped the boundaries of captivity, European immigrant bees, left to their own devices, seek out the invasive weeds from their homeland, like purple loosestrife — much in the way homesick Italians of early-20th-century New York might have looked for olive oil or mozzarella. This nostalgic pollination, Nordhaus says, has in no small part complicated efforts to control or eradicate these plants. Honeybees also compete with native bee species for food and nest space, and may even have contributed to the extinction of the lovely green Carolina parakeet by commandeering the holes in trees where the birds would nest.
While Nordhaus admires bees — and there is much to admire — she is under no delusion about the hard work and uncertain livelihood that accompanies a life of beekeeping. She follows beekeeper John Miller as he moves his hives around the country: from California's Central Valley, where they support the thriving multimillion-dollar almond industry, to Idaho, where he buys new queens, to Washington State to pollinate apples, and to North Dakota for the summer, where the bees feast on meadow flowers and make honey. "Bees," Nordhaus observes, "organize their lives around seasons of plen...read more