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fruitless fall

7 august 2009

As a matter of fact, I have read some good books lately, haven't I? The latest is Fruitless Fall, Rowan Jacobsen's holistic approach to Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious condition that is decimating America's beehives. I came away from Jacobsen's book with a new appreciation of bees and honey. And though the book is about collapse and coming crisis, I also came away with hope that sanity can reassert itself in our much-assailed biosphere.

When bees began disappearing from hives in recent years, beekeepers and researchers alike sought for a simple cause. Simple causes, Jacobsen remarks, are what science does best; only God and Nature work well with multiple variables. Confronted with CCD, everyone hoped that a single drug, some new bee vitamin, or some other kind of magic bullet would dispel the disease and get bee colonies back on their wings.

The situation looks desperate, though. Certain pesticides may be to blame. Certain parasites are associated with CCD. Feeding bees with high-fructose corn syrup may be no wiser than feeding ourselves with the stuff. Trucking bees thousands of miles to stressful pollination jobs on gigantic almond groves seems like less than a best practice. Apiarists less affected by CCD than others suggest that the root cause of CCD is PPB: piss-poor beekeeping. They may be more correct than their snark level would indicate. Not in the sense that CCD-afflicted beekeepers are incompetent at routine hive maintenance, but that "routine hive maintenance" in the days of globalized agribusiness is in itself a piss-poor way to treat honey bees.

Jacobsen is a journalist, not an entomologist, but his overall assessment rings true. Bees are dying because they are subjected to hideous unnatural stress. The stress, in turn, is caused by the illogic of treating agriculture like other forms of business. In response to demands for maximum ROI and off-the-charts growth, American farmers have perforce turned huge swaths of territory into sterile monofarms where only one thing grows. In much of California's Central Valley, that one thing is almond trees. Since almonds are completely dependent on insects for pollination, and since growing almond trees on every square inch of the valley means that wild pollinators have no habitat, all that pollination must be provided by itinerant domesticated bees.

And if there's one thing we've learned from Michael Pollan, it's that monocultures are disasters waiting to happen. Just as the potato blight devastated Ireland's economy in the 19th century, an almond blight could devastate California's in the 21st. And since without bees, there are no almonds, a bee blight could do the trick just as easily.

There is hope. Just as diversified farming can restore balance to crops and soils, old-fashioned sustainable beekeeping, as exemplified by Vermont (where else?) apiarist Kirk Webster, has the potential to reduce and reverse the effects of CCD. Instead of dousing his hives with pesticides and antibiotics, Webster works on the theory that disease and parasites are good things. With a little help from Darwin, he breeds bees that show natural resistance to various plagues – and he doesn't ship them cross-country to live the lives of migrant pollinators.

Jacobsen acknowledges his debt to Michael Pollan, at one point even begging indulgence for having a "Michael Pollan moment." But he's a different kind of writer: less rueful, sassier, less lyrical, more interested at translating statistics into implications (something Jacobsen does very well indeed). After I finished reading Fruitless Fall, I went right out and bought myself a little bear full of honey: raw, unfiltered, local Texas honey hand-packed in Waxahachie, mind you. Jacobsen suggests that honey makes an excellent cough syrup, a good somnifacient, and a much better first-aid ointment than Neosporin. I think I'll just eat it while I can.

Jacobsen, Rowan. Fruitless Fall: The collapse of the honey bee and the coming agricultural crisis. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.