Honey and the Long Haul

By Marlene ZukOctober 5, 2011

Honey and the Long Haul

The Beekeepers Lament by Hannah Nordhaus


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 plenty and want. So does Miller." Over the course of lengthy visits and interviews and a series of quirky poetic emails with the beekeeper, Nordhaus "realized that [she] had stumbled onto someone who had taken an unusual and thorny route through life, someone who cared passionately about something strange and had a talent for expressing it."

Miller's and the other beekeepers' peripatetic lifestyle is not simply the charming idyll of whimsical nomads. For many of us to eat the produce we love, beekeepers and their buzzing charges must be constantly, by necessity, on the move. Nordhaus provides the facts: Bees are used for 90 different crops which, all told, yield close to $15 billion each year; for better or worse, they have become "pollination machines." This means that, while a few people may dabble in urban beekeeping and own a backyard hive or two, serious beekeepers need to have lots and lots of bees to maintain our agricultural system — millions, for the more serious. At one point, Miller possessed over 10,000 hives, with 30,000 or 40,000 bees in each.

This need for large-scale production, Nordhaus explains, is what has led to the devil's bargain over almonds. Virtually everyone who keeps bees for a living comes to California in January and February to serve the needs of the state's largest agricultural export, a multibillion-dollar industry. Although wind and the occasional opportunistic bird or native bee can pollinate the almond, using honeybees raises a grower's yield from 40 pounds per acre to upwards of 2,400 pounds. For a part of any given year, close to two-thirds of the bees in the entire U.S. end up in almond orchards. It's a hard-charging entomological work ethic that is not, unfortunately, without its price. While January can seem balmy in California, at least compared with its counterparts in the East and the Midwest, bees evolved in a climate where winter meant enforced rest and hibernation. Making them work so hard so much of the year saps their reserves, like miniature long-haul truck drivers who don't get enough sleep, and they end up plagued with disease, exposed to more pesticides, or just plain exhausted. "The almond orchards have been compared to a brothel for their remarkable capacity to transmit disease across the country," Nordhaus writes:

another apt metaphor might be a wartime military barracks, or a slave ship. Bees have been favorably compared in their work ethic to "volunteer pollinators," so logic would suggest that commercial honey bees are in fact conscripts — and the conditions of conscription are rarely conducive to health. The age of mass production has not been kind to bees.


The almond industry is killing John Miller's bees. But it allows him to do what he loves, which is to keep bees — so all in all, it is a pretty good deal with the devil ... He sits and listens to his bees hum in the almond trees, making nuts and money.


The overworking of the bee labor force might be a part of the giant unwieldy puzzle that is CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder — a big, vague, sad term for a big, vague, sad problem in the world of bees. Of course, bees have always died, in large numbers and small, and domesticated honeybees have been subject to a wide variety of threats over the years, including parasites like the varroa mite, a tiny eight-legged beast that literally sucks the life out of a bee colony. But about five years ago, according to Nordhaus, beekeepers and farmers started noticing massive die-offs occurring all over the world on a massive scale, devastating entire hives, their workers either dead or disappeared without a trace.

CCD caught the imagination of the public as few other environmental issues have. The person whose eyes glaze over at the mention of increases in carbon emissions is, for some reason, all too quick to accost scientists and wail, "What about the bees?" CCD was an eco-catastrophe people actually wanted to hear about; it became emblematic of what's wrong with the way we treat the natural world, and everyone had a pet theory — it was pesticides, it was a new bee plague, it was global warming, it was Satan in cahoots with the Tea Party.

The truth is that all of these seem to have caused CCD, with the possible exception of the last. Nordhaus quotes the eminent bee biologist Marla Spivak, who says that "[b]ees are reaching their tipping point because they are expected to perform in an increasingly inhospitable world." Pesticides and parasites hurt bees, as does working year-round, as does the loss of meadows with flowers bearing nectar for the manufacture of honey. Maybe the bees could have withstood one of these things, or even two, but scientists' best guess is that CCD is a conglomeration of bee losses, a complicated and unsatisfying interaction between all of the forces that make life hard for an insect simultaneously untamable and subject to farmers' and beekeepers' control.

The public fascination with honeybee loss, however, might have a small silver lining: Spivak hopes it will encourage people to think about those other pollinators, the 4,000 kinds of other bees, like bumblebees and leafcutter bees, which are native to North America. Those bees are in trouble, too, and if we can make the world a more welcoming place for them, the honeybees will also prosper. Pesticides in your garden might deter aphids or weevils, but they will also contaminate the bees that visit it. And planting something, anything, other than a lawn will encourage other insect visitors, such as butterflies, not to mention birds. It seems we might even be able to reduce our reliance on honeybees for crops, though right now this is a far-off fantasy.

Hard as it is to imagine a world without honeybees, Adrian Wenner, a retired professor from U.C. Santa Barbara, along with his colleagues, has not only imagined it but has made it a reality, albeit on a miniscule scale. A few years ago, Wenner declared his decades-long effort to remove European honeybees from Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California, a success.

Honeybees were introduced to Santa Cruz Island in the 1880s, but no beekeepers had ever used them commercially, and all the bees became feral. During his visits to the island in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Wenner noticed that the flowers on Santa Cruz were visited by vastly different insects than those on other, honeybee-free, islands. He was concerned that the honeybees were competing with native pollinators, and potentially putting them at risk of extinction. Because the island is an isolated ecosystem, Wenner thought he could possibly turn back time, to a period before the bees had arrived. And so he and his co-workers undertook a massive task — to locate and destroy each and every honeybee colony on the island.

They began in 1988 and finally declared the job finished in 2004, having spent the intervening years scrambling over dense chaparral, up steep slopes, and through narrow canyons, searching for cracks in trees and holes in boulders where the bees might have settled. Ironically, they killed the colonies using the varroa mite, that same pest that has plagued beekeeping for decades; the mites do not parasitize any other type of bee or wasp, so their method was environmentally friendly. By the time it was all over, they had eradicated at least 300 honeybee colonies. Wenner hopes that the island can now become a living laboratory, where scientists from around the world can see what happens when insects and plants are freed from honeybee domination.??Honeybees continue to thrive elsewhere, insofar, at least, as they have been able to evade the manifold curses of CCD. Nordhaus points out that the beekeepers could simply stop treating bees for mites and other diseases and let natural selection take its course, with only the resistant bees left for breeding. This would take its toll on beekeepers like Miller, but then one might wonder why such people, with their razor-thin profit margins and their backbreaking, year-round work, keep at it in any event. As Nordhaus writes, "By now it should be obvious: bee guys are not reasonable people." Like cowboys, they spend their time entranced with a creature that does not belong, that can't love them back, but that has captured their hearts nonetheless.


LARB Contributor

Marlene Zuk is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota and the author, most recently, of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live.


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