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Sting in the tale

Bees are news. The advent of a sinister condition dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder has concentrated many minds on the future of the honey bee, not least in the US where the disorder is prevalent and pollination by bees accounts for billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural produce.

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

The Beekeeper’s Lament: How Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America Hannah Nordhaus

HarperPerennial, pp.288, 8.99

Bees in the City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook Alison Benjamin and Brian McCall

Guardian Books, pp.247, 12.99

Bees are news. The advent of a sinister condition dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder has concentrated many minds on the future of the honey bee, not least in the US where the disorder is prevalent and pollination by bees accounts for billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural produce.

Bees are news. The advent of a sinister condition dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder has concentrated many minds on the future of the honey bee, not least in the US where the disorder is prevalent and pollination by bees accounts for billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural produce. Over here, CCD isn’t officially a problem, but numbers appear to be down. Both these new bee books address the issues.

The focus of The Beekeeper’s Lament is John Miller, a long-distance bee-keeper who, as Hannah Nordhaus reports, ‘likes to email. He also likes to pontificate, joke, write, say incendiary things, tell stories, drip with sarcasm. Most of all, he likes to talk.’ Nordhaus too. She has a crush on Miller, who drives his bees around the interstate; he’s part bee-keeper and part trucker and his operation is on a continental scale. He has literally millions of bees, hundreds of hives. The bees are required by the almond growers of California to pollinate the trees in spring, and then get taken to Florida, and then to the wilds of North Dakota to make honey.


In this country we don’t do much long-distance bee-keeping; though hives have been kept on barges and boats. In the States honey bees aren’t native, but were brought over by the early colonists; nevertheless it was an American, Lorenzo Langstroth, who invented the modern beehive in 1851. With him, commercial bee-farming was born. It isn’t easy. Fifteen years ago there were 5,000 beekeepers; now their numbers have declined by three quarters. Nordhaus lists the problems — pesticides, cheap honey, the human toll of living on the road for months on end, hive heists, parasites and diseases. You get stung a lot and there are no holidays. ‘Bee guys,’ she says, ‘are hopeless romantics, dancing on the razor’s edge of failure in order to do something they love.’

The razor’s edge is whetted by disease, the number one problem for bee-keepers. Nordhaus’s exhaustive examination of the evidence suggests that there are no simple causes — and perhaps no single remedies — for the battery of parasites and pathogens that seem regularly to batter bees. It isn’t mobile phones, or neonicotinoidal pesticides, but rather a combination of all these factors, and maybe some we don’t yet understand, though neither of these books seems to think that bees are finished, with all that would imply for the future of mankind. Yet bees don’t like stress, so it’s odd that in the acres of prose devoted to bee troubles Nordhaus doesn’t flag up the stress of travel, all that trucking to and fro, as a contributing factor in the decline in bee numbers.

The worst thing is that bees are genetically impoverished by years of bee-keeping. Like most other bee-keepers, Miller conducts a brutal, but quite logical, re-queening of his hives every year, buying new queens from professional queen producers and squishing the old ones. His bees, and everyone else’s, have become all very much the same, which leaves them all vulnerable to the same diseases. There are no wild bees left in North America. There are precious few in Europe, and those are on an island off the Danish coast.

Benjamin and McCall’s Bees in the City suggests that bees may be best off in towns, especially when cities like Newcastle make efforts to be bee-friendly, reducing grass cutting and municipal bedding of annuals (double-headed flower varieties, apparently, have very little pollen; bees would much prefer borage). In the meantime, urban back gardens provide bees with a more varied and seasonal source of pollen than many factory-farmed rural landscapes.
It’s not just the bees who feel the benefit, either. Bees in the City emphasises bee-keeping’s therapeutic effects, as teenage tearaways become calm and affectionate from tending the hive. The authors picture a secret world of rooftop bees, amusing workers in their lunch hour. There are even two hives on top of Fortnum’s. Bees in the City is a useful primer on urban beekeeping.

In the old days, pre-19th century, when the country air was alive with the Keatsian drone, and the sward was studded with wildflowers, you pretty well needed to destroy the hive to get the honey; then came Langstroth’s removable frames and the idea of a queen excluder, which further divided the labour of the hive. The queen laid eggs, the drones fed the grubs, and all the honey was stored in a separate box. When you take the honey you replace it with sugar, grown as a monoculture, to keep the bees going. Meanwhile, having planted a local monoculture of, say, almond trees, you start shipping your bees around as pollinators. They go for the blossom because there isn’t anything else. Over here, like people and foxes, the bees migrate to cities to live.

So bees, dying, diseased, collapsing, struggling and kept artificially alive with varroa boards and doses of chemicals, reflect the sort of world we have made for ourselves. It’s curious that Langstroth himself was prey to depression. ‘While under its full power,’ he wrote, ‘I not only lose all interest in bees, but prefer to sit on that side of the house where I can neither see nor hear them.’ Just looking at the letter ‘B’ could bring on his ‘head trouble’. Queen bees are queens, but they are also slaves, like celebrities; we, the drones, get shoved about and planned for and dosed with cultural sugar, and now and then — through the antics of, say, a Murdoch, or a policeman — we get a frightening glimpse of the Great Beekeeper who controls us all.


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