'Beekeeper's Lament': A Rare Glimpse Inside the Endangered World of Beekeeping

First a confession: I am a hobbyist beekeeper. I have written articles for the American Bee Journal, a children's book on the Malaysian honeyhunters and I have a deep passion for anything having to do with bees. This passion for bees places me in a group of individuals with the so-called "bee fever" -- a fever that still persists, burning strong after almost 10 years.


I have read dozens of books about bees -- both fiction and nonfiction -- and devoured Hannah Nordhaus' book, The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America. Her book is extraordinary in its breadth and depth, and most of all, it is exquisitely written. She distills information about beekeeping that many authors have attempted, but few command the writing skills of this seasoned journalist and none capture the magic of such a fascinating main character as John Miller -- a fourth-generation Mormon migratory beekeeper who serves as the queen bee in this enchanting tale.

Nordhaus first contacted Miller in 2004 while researching an article about a honey-based energy gel. The author found herself captivated by Miller's email correspondence that utilized stanza and verse, and believed she had discovered the "email poet laureate of the beekeeping profession." Miller became the book's protagonist who delivers a powerful and unforgettable voice of experience, reason and resilience while struggling to save his "dancing friends" and family business.

Nordhaus weaves the words and wisdom of this peripatetic beekeeper poet throughout the book, a character who clearly moves to his own unique rhythm.

Just as Miller gets excited each time he pries the top off one of his thousands of beehives to look inside, each chapter in The Beekeeper's Lament offers us a fascinating peek into the diverse, interrelated, and worrisome aspects of the beekeeper's world. Nordhaus provides a good background for the challenges facing beekeepers and honeybees: the well-publicized Colony Collapse Disorder (that has recently decimated thousands of hives around the world), the ongoing plague of parasitic mites and pathogens that are weakening honeybee colonies, the toxic effects of agricultural pesticides, and hard-to assess stresses resulting from forced migrations and mono-crop diets that afflict today's commercial honeybees. Miller describes the critical importance of commercial honeybees as the champion pollinators for our food systems, noting that these "girls" who do 99 percent of the work in each hive are responsible for one in every three bites of each summer's harvest.

The Beekeeper's Lament provides an in-depth portrait of the multi-billion dollar almond industry in California as a prime example of what Nordhaus calls the "Faustian bargain" that exists today between farmers and beekeepers. Almond growers know they would have no crop without truckloads of hives, many of which are transported thousands of miles. The migratory beekeepers know that many of their brethren would go under without the lucrative pollination service contracts provided by the growers. Miller laments the timing of the almond pollination in February, noting that honeybees are not naturally active in winter months, thus adding another disruption and stress factor for bees that are already battling mites, pesticides and other pathogens. The hardworking nature of bees has been harnessed -- and possibly pushed to the limit -- by this Faustian bargain.

This book is fast-paced, not unlike the harried, on-the-road life of a migratory beekeeper. For those who have had their interest piqued by the plight of bees and want a scientifically based, yet entertaining read, this book accomplishes all. The Beekeeper's Lament highlights the exquisite role of honeybees, making them -- and the beekeepers that tend them -- understood and more visible. By the end of this book, the reader will see how their fate is inextricably linked with beekeepers, scientists, farmers and honeybees.

But this book also contains a bittersweet message: The bees are our canaries in the coal mine, warning us that modern agribusiness is both spectacularly productive and environmentally destructive. The author and John Miller provide us with no silver bullets for this quandary. Instead, we see how beekeepers at all levels -- hobbyists, commercial operators, scientists and researchers -- are now experimenting with new approaches to help bees survive.

Many have tried various treatments including pesticides -- both natural and synthetically derived -- to control mites and other pathogens that are ravaging hives across the globe. But those efforts are facing the same problems that scientists have documented for decades as pests quickly develop resistance to the poison.

Nordhaus shines a bright light on a promising and new segment of beekeepers who are experimenting with a different approach; breeding bees with greater resistance to parasitic mites, diseases and other stresses. These beekeepers and scientists are trying to select bees with "hygienic" qualities and other traits that will allow them to become the "survivor stock" that may help the species survive.

Nordhaus ignores the popular myths like bee-killing cell phones and focuses instead on solid scientific research. She references the top bee scientists in the country but makes their research interesting and accessible.

Despite the laments of beekeeper John Miller that leave a reader with a heavy heart, his love of the bees and his fellow beekeepers comes through so eloquently that I was sad to finish the final chapter.

The Beekeeper's Lament is an enjoyable and enlightening read and takes the reader on a journey led by an exceptional guide, Hannah Nordhaus, and an entertaining driver, beekeeper John Miller who keeps us company on this fascinating journey.

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