The Beekeeper's Lament: Must-read book on bee life, and death


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.

The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America by Hannah Nordhaus

Image: Return of the Bee, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (2.0) image from mightyboybrian's photostream


  1. Really interesting and the book is a must buy.

    However, the picture is of a bumblebee, not a honeybee.

  2. Thanks, I’m picking the book up this afternoon.

    Unfortunately, that’s a bumblebee in the picture. ;-)

  3. The irony is that the European Honeybee is in fact not a very good pollinator. There are any number of native bee species that are much better. The (domesticated) European bee is used because it works on the schedule needed for industrial farming – the massive hives can be trucked in when insecticide isn’t being used. (Of course this method is exactly what’s threatening the honeybees, but oh well.) The native bees are always around and are one of the many victims of the collateral damage of industrial pesticide use.

  4. The problem is that commercial bee-keeping is basically factory farming.

    Extremely large and dense populations of a single species of animal.

    We have enough trouble doing this with mammals and birds, and we end up pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to grow to food-size. But insects are an even greater challenge, because they are so small and short lived already, literally any kind of tiny flucuation can kill them.

    And like other kinds of factory farming, commerical bee-keeping, on the scale it exists today, is not really necessary; we have only made it so, by practicing industrial farming practices of large cash crops, eradicating natural pollinators, destroying ecosystems and biodiversity, such that bee colonies must be pimped out (hey, it fits) to pollinate all these commercial crops.

    CCD is not some kind of existential threat to mother nature or even bees, it is a threat to the big agricultural industry.

    1. Thank you for pointing out the should-have-been-obvious! Yes, even apiculture lends itself to grossly large scale abuse. As for the “honeybees are bad pollinators” canard, they’ve done just fine for 70 million years. It’s the human species that are bad pollinators. Camel-hair brushes and amazingly close attention to floral details make a pretty dull day, just like all agriculture.

  5. Well, bumblebees really are more photogenic than honeybees, they’re like the 1980s supermodels of bees.

    Reading The Beekeepers Lament, I got the impression that while most people recognize that bees play a role in agriculture, they don’t really comprehend to what extent. They get that bees are required for pollination of certain crops, but few people understand just how intricate and interwoven the industries are. Nodhaus did a fantastic job with the book.

  6. And they’re killed by the almond crop, which draws millions of bees from all over the nation to one small region of California

    This was the most fascinating sentence in the summary, but also very misleading. I had the image of bees across the nation homing in on California almonds by magic, or some kind of annual natural migration. So I Googled.

    Turns out they’re brought in by the almond industry. Much less interesting, and much more troublesome in terms of disease etc.

  7. I have a wild hive in my back yard, in a hollow tree. They moved in while my house was vacant, and I’ve been told that there is no way of moving them without massive damage to the colony and/or the tree that they’re in. Because of the CCD and other pressures on bees, I decided not to exterminate them, so I’ve just been keeping my distance from he tree.

    I’m so glad that I didn’t do anything rash. They haven’t bothered me or my GF at all, and they are amazingly well behaved. They are fascinating to watch as they dance at the mouth of the hive, telling each other where to look for flowers. They’re about 15 foot from my screened porch, and it’s fun to watch them come and go, particularly when the light hits them right.

    Living with nature is so much nicer than trying to make everything tame.

    1. Good for you. Enjoy ‘your’ bees. A number of our neighbor’s hives came from a colony that had set itself up for several years in a rotted out power pole. He couldn’t get into it, but would get calls from the utility when they swarmed.

      Finally, the utility needed to replace the pole. They cut off the top above the hollow section, and my neighbor and a friend dug out the base of the pole, cut it off, wrapped the whole works in burlap, and hauled it out to a forest stand where he has several of his hives. They braced it up and left it to hopefully live happily ever after.

  8. Well, the only answer then is to breed superbees!

    Ok, so a hyped-up headline for what breeders and natural selection have been doing for a while.

    I don’t have an answer for commercial hives, which seems to be both the cause and concern for CCD in many ways. On a local small commercial or hobby basis, a best solution appears to be “let the bees be bees” – We have a hive on our property from a beekeeper neighbor. The majority of his colonies are from local feral stock – or as we call them, mutt bees. They are smaller, crossbred, and have survived the local winters and stressors. Therefore, perfect for a local, non-peregrine operation. Set them up with limited management, and let them do what they do. Part of the purpose of swarms, beside reproducing colonies (which have a natural die-off of about 50%) is to break the mite breeding cycle. When this is suppressed, presto! – mites.

    For more efficient pollination, get a few blocks of wood, a 5/16″ drillbit, and build a bunch of mason bee nest blocks to set up under your eaves.

    And since you have a bumblebee posted – their populations are declining, too. Locally (Pacific Northwest) – part of the cause is attributed to imported bumblebees escaping from tomato hothouses.

  9. I used to be an amateur beekeeper for some years, till I developed allergy to their venom. It is a deadly condition (I had two reactions, the second drove me close to anaphylactic shock), so I gave up. My allergy treatment lasted 5 years, and the result has not been very good. Don’t let the bees sting you, even if you think you have already developed tolerance. The more venom you get the more chances you have to develop allergy.

  10. Habitat destruction has got to play into the declining bee pop. And while that may be a losing battle, there is a little good news. It is actually really easy to attract bees to your garden just by planting bee-friendly flowers. Flame acanthus brings the black bumblebees every summer and the blue-flowered salvia brings them in spring. Lavender is very popular with bees, too. Anyway, the point is, wherever you live, there has to be some kind of flower that works for your climate and if you can keep it alive, the bees will undoubtedly find it. And for god’s sake, quit it with the pesticides and herbicides. Even the “enviro-friendly” formulas are killing trees now. I don’t know about factory farming, but for any kind of residential use, there is no excuse for using that crud.

  11. Here in the desert southwest, I marvel at the sheer numbers of Africanized bees. A bee removal expert said there were approximately ten hives per square mile in my area and horrible bee attacks make the news regularly. These bees thrive.

    Do these bees hold the key to the survival of domestic bees? Are they thriving because they are not exposed to as many pesticides? (mesquite blossoms are one of their major sources of food).

    In the spring, when mesquites are flowering, it is an unnerving experience to be in a grove that is loud with the sound of thousands upon thousands of bees. I often think about the dire situation with domestic bees and how the bees here seem completely unaffected.

    1. Do these bees hold the key to the survival of domestic bees?
      Honeybees are not domestic bees in the USA. They were brought over from Europe and are cultivated by commercial and amateur beekeepers.

      They do not replace the role of indiginous pollinators except for massive farm operations that have wiped out indiginous bugs with pesticides.

      Honestly the Honeybeepocalypse has been framed in a disingenuous way by the media. It is not a mother nature problem, it is a Big Agriculture problem.

  12. Just a little snippet for y’all: you’d rather be stung directly on your eyeball than on your eyelid or on your face immediately below your eyes.

    Totally serious. I have this on very good authority.

    If you aren’t allergic, the eyeball won’t react to the venom, so you can just yank the stinger out and go about your business. The eye heals in a day or so and the venom is harmlessly neutralized and absorbed over the course of a week or two without any further action. Your vision may be cloudy for a while.

    But if you get stung on your face really close to the eye, holy bejazuz on a unicycle! People who laugh off stings on their hands and feet are in for a big surprise. This I know from more personal experience. A bee sting just under the eye is like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat.

  13. >>”I know, I know. But it was a better picture than the ones of the honeybees. When they get more photogenic on Flickr, then they can have the spot”

    I don’t know – I think all our 30,000+ girls are just lovely.

    As for the almond crop business: yeah, many bee keepers who have multiple hives contract out their colonies to commercial farmers, and can make a decent profit from it. The risk of mites or small hive beetles (DAMN those small hive beetles!!)etc., and of crossbreeding with africanized bees has been a big factor in my wife and I choosing to keep ours strictly local. You CAN manage this if you are aggressive about re-queening every year, but it is kind of a pain in the butt to hunt down your queens that often, and then you feel kind of bad just pinching her head off if she’s been ruling an otherwise gentle colony (I have very rarely been stung, even without kit on).

    To the guy with the feral colony in his back yard – BRAVO! Let them stay, and if you have a yen to do so, plant a small vegetable and herb garden – even if it’s just a window box. The bees will stay and you win too!

  14. Bees cannot be as delicate as they might seem, but something serious is going on in our environment and bees seem to be leading indicators or a problem.

    Indigo Tree Publishing has released BUZZ, a young adult novel that weaves in much of this

  15. Interesting, thanks ! I’ll keep letting flowers grow in my garden to feed them, and keep them working !
    Btw, as we’re in bee-world, I imagine you’ve all heard about Sue Hubbell’s books ? “A Country Year: Living the Questions” published in 1986, and “A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them” in 1988.
    She went to live out in the Ozarks moutains and make honey over there. She sometimes contributes to some press, paper and online, too. Great woman.

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