A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics
I was sitting on a terrace in Burgundy, watching a dozen honeybees bustling amid the lavender bushes, when I decided that The Beekeeper’s Lament had to be the next book to come out of the “to read” pile. While the hills of the Morvan National Park, with a mixture of forests and pasture lands, often still divided by hedges, bear little resemblance to the extensive, pesticide-soaked monocultures that characterise American agriculture. But now bees are in trouble everywhere around the globe, and it is a problem for all of us. Indeed, that’s partly why I planted those lavender bushes.
The problem is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – at least that is the latest, it becomes clear, of a long line of problems that have been haunting beekeepers. The most commonly suggested cause, and certainly still very much in the frame, are neonicotinoid insecticides – used on more than 150 different crops, and in pet flea collars. Genetically modified corn, mobile phone masts, and many other causes have also been suggested. Often, also, traditional pests and diseases of bees – the most destructive of which is the varoa mite – have also been blamed. As Nordhaus amusingly notes, it’s also been claimed as an early sign of Judgement Day – those industrious bees being the first to rise to heaven.
But the explanation that seems to be gaining increasing traction is more complex. Nordhaus notes that CCD seems to share with HIV/AIDS the fact that the condition sees otherwise healthy hives fall prey to conditions laid usually resist -something is weakening the bees. This is not thought to be one single infective agent or other single cause, but fact that these are simply being worked too hard, moved around too much, exposed to too many pesticides, even in tiny doses, facing too difficult weather conditions. But above all, Nordhaus suggests, the of being fed too limited diet – “suffering from the same kind of bad nutrition afflicting humans who eat processed junk food. … Sprawl, mono crops, flawless lawns, weedless gardens, and a general decline in pasture land of make hard for bees to find a suitable diversity of nectar and pollen sources. Bees, it turns out, need natural places.” (p. 249) (And bats, which have ecological similarities to be bees, also suffering hugely –particularly from mysterious “white nose syndrome”.)
One of the things this book makes clear is just how complex and sophisticated bees are. Here’s Nordhaus’s accounts of the production of a pound of honey – which will take a hive a day. “The 50,000 or 80,000 bees who live together in a hive at the height of summer will travel a collective 55,000 miles and visit more than 2 million flowers. … One worker will visit 50 to 100 flowers on each trip from the hive, in the process collecting and dispersing pollen from flower to flower, allowing the plants it touches to reproduce.” (p. 235)
Yet American beekeepers are frequently paid less than the cost production for their honey, and what is sold as honey can be up to 80% corn syrup. Regulation has been judged to be a low priority. (p. 241) And here’s a warning, imports of Chinese honey were banned in 2002, as result of antibiotic contamination, yet curiously after that the top 12 honey-exporting countries now export more than total home production. Few checks are made. (p. 243)