What's killing the bees? After reading The Beekeeper's Lament —Hannah Nordhaus' lyrical, haunting book about the complicated lives and deaths of America's honeybees—my question has shifted more towards, "Good lord, what doesn't kill bees?"
Domesticated bees turn out to be some amazingly fragile creatures. In fact, Nordhaus writes, bees were delicate even before the modern age of industrial farming. It wasn't until the second half of the 19th century that humans were able to reliably domesticate bees. Even then, beekeeping was anything but a stable business to be in. But in the last decade, the job has gotten harder, and the bee deaths have piled up faster. Bees are killed by moths and mites, bacteria and viruses, heat and cold. They're killed by the pesticides used on the plants they pollinate, and by the other pesticides used to protect them from murderous insects. And they're killed by the almond crop, which draws millions of bees from all over the nation to one small region of California, where they join in an orgy of pollination and another of disease sharing.
None of this negates the seriousness of Colony Collapse Disorder, that still-mysterious ailment that reduced more than 1/3 of America's healthy beehives to empty boxes in 2007. But what Nordhaus does (and does well) is put those famous losses into a broader context. Colony Collapse Disorder is a problem. But it isn't the problem. Instead, it's just a great big insult piled on top of an already rising injury rate. Saving the honeybee isn't just about figuring out CCD. Bees were already in trouble before that came along. In the years since 2007, Nordhaus writes, bees have died at a rate higher than the expected and "acceptable" 15% annual loss, but the majority of those deaths weren't always caused by CCD.
The picture of bee maladies that Nordhaus paints isn't a pretty one. The bees continue to be extremely important to our national food system, and they continue to die in numbers that are far more vast than the normally high death rates beekeepers have always dealt with. Worse, there's no easy answer. At least not one that scientific evidence has been able to pin down yet. If you're looking for a simple solution—if you want somebody to justify your pet explanation, whether pesticides, or GMOs, or totally natural causes that have nothing to do with modern farming practices—then you probably won't like what Nordhaus has to say.
But if you're interested in the real complexity behind the headlines, you're in luck. There's so much going on in this book, details that are vitally important to understanding how modern beekeeping works and what happens when it fails, and which almost never make it into the short articles and TV segments. Nordhaus doesn't even really start talking about Colony Collapse Disorder in an in-depth way until chapter 6. And that's a good thing. By the time you get to that chapter, it's clear that she couldn't have written about it any sooner. There's too much context that you need to understand before you can really make sense of that hot-button issue.
Better yet, Nordhaus manages to wrap all that nuance up in some of the best narrative and storytelling I've had the pleasure of reading since Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Like Skloot, Nordhaus owes some of the credit to the fact that her primary source is a fabulous character to hang a story on. John Miller, the professional beekeeper whose work and adventures set the stage for Nordhaus' reporting, is curmudgeonly and charming, hard-headed and hilarious. He's a conservative farmer who likes fast cars, loves his bees, and writes Nordhaus emails that read like Zen koans. Even when it's clear that some of the practices that keep people like Miller in business are also hurting the bee populations, it's hard not to root for him, as a person.
Nordhaus puts the bee panic into perspective, and Miller puts a human face on the complexities and contradictions behind it. Before you build a beehive, before you post another Internet forum message about what absolutely just has to be killing the bees, you must read this book.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.