I didn’t know that in January of each year two thirds of the nation’s honeybee hives are trucked to the central valley of California to pollinate the almonds. Bees from all over the nation and even some foreign ports are mixed together in the almond groves, a mono-crop so mono that there is nothing but bare dirt beneath the trees to make it easier to harvest the financial bonanza that is the almond.
Almond trees (or ‘ammands’ as my grandfather pronounced it) were rare when we first started visiting my grandparents’ poorly named Green Acres Ranch in Livingston, California in the late forties. Then, it was alfalfa and peaches and a few grapes as the Gallos were just starting to build their empire. Now, it is square miles of almonds, a crop that just seems to get more profitable each year. Literally millions of bees are required to pollinate this crop. If an almond grower relies on wind and native pollinators they can depend on 40 lbs per acre. If the grower imports bees the yield increases to more than 2400 lbs per acre. Beekeepers earn $140-$210 per rented hive. Almonds, in fact, provide whatever profit a beekeeper expects to make for his year. The wealthy almond grower and struggling beekeeper are in a symbiotic relationship as important as the mutualism experienced by the bee and her keepers.
The Beekeeper’s Lament is a well-researched and very readable. The lament is that a beekeeper is often more like an undertaker, dealing with collapsing hives, starving bees, strange viruses and parasitic critters that make the beekeeper miserable. Hannah Nordhaus tells the story of the bee and the beekeeper using a fellow named John Miller as her focus. Miller has been a beekeeper most of his life and comes from a long line of beekeepers. His is a big operation with thousands of hives which he moves from his place in Northern California to the almond fields of central California, to Eastern Washington for apple blossoms, to North Dakota for the summer nectar flow, then to Idaho where the bees are put in what amounts to storage for the winter. North Dakota is so bereft of strong backed workers that he and other beekeepers have to import summer help from South Africa. These commercial bees are being moved all the time, stacked on pallets and packed onto trucks. It’s no wonder that they get sick and die. They resemble indentured servants or even slave labor and yet they have worked out a deal with beekeepers to take care of them, to feed them in the winter, to medicate them, to provide shelter and natural sustenance, and to re-queen their hives.
Still, the impression one comes away with on reading this book is one of dead bees. Often thirty percent of hives are lost and populations have to be rebuilt. There’s always some problem: varroa mites, nosema virus or Colony Collapse. Dead bees. The beekeeper’s lament.
Beekeepers love bees and that probably accounts for the resilience of both beekeepers and the honeybee. Nevertheless, the honeybee seems to be in critical condition. In 1923 Rudolf Steiner predicted the honeybee would be extinct in 80-100 years He is on the verge of being right. Research, not surprisingly funded by almond growers, is working toward a scientific, perhaps a genetic, solution. But that involves messing with mother nature. From the viewpoint of the layman it seems like monoculture has to be a part of the problem. Agriculture as big business with large acreage of monocrops is clearly unnatural and part of the problem. The beelots described in the book remind one of cattle feedlots.
The Beekeeper’s Lament tells the story of the commercial beekeeper and his relationship to monoculture with interesting detail on the history of the bee, its genetics, the process of commercial beekeeping, the queen raising business, bee stings, bee diseases and CCD. All things considered, reading it made me sad. I can connect with the lamentation. My bees are doing poorly.