The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed Americaby Hannah Nordhaus
“You’llnever think of bees, their keepers, or the fruits (and nuts) of their laborsthe same way again.” —Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters
Award-winning journalist Hannah Nordhaus tells the remarkable story of John Miller, one of America’s foremost migratory beekeepers, and the myriad and mysterious/b>
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“You’llnever think of bees, their keepers, or the fruits (and nuts) of their laborsthe same way again.” —Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters
Award-winning journalist Hannah Nordhaus tells the remarkable story of John Miller, one of America’s foremost migratory beekeepers, and the myriad and mysterious epidemics threatening American honeybee populations. In luminous, razor-sharp prose, Nordhaus explores the vital role that honeybees play in American agribusiness, the maintenance of our food chain, and the very future of the nation. With an intimate focus and incisive reporting, in a book perfect for fans of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire,and John McPhee’s Oranges, Nordhaus’s stunning exposé illuminates one the most critical issues facing the world today,offering insight, information, and, ultimately, hope.
A crackerjack story of one American beekeeper's days, with both his songs of joy and sorrow, presented within the context of beekeeping's natural and social history.
While researching a story about beekeeping, journalist Nordhaus happened upon John Miller, a migratory beekeeper who shuttles his thousands of hives from California to North Dakota. The author struck gold with the colorful Miller, a man who "likes to pontificate, joke, write, say incendiary things, tell stories, drip with sarcasm." As beekeeping has a fascinating, ages-old story to tell, Miller is an excellent ambassador, born to a long line of apiarists and a willing slave to his hives. Nordhaus is a lively writer who knows how to get to the nub of a topic, be it the architecture of a hive, the sting of a honey bee or the various nefarious infestations that beleaguer bee colonies. Since Colony Collapse Disorder has captured much national interest, she covers that plague, plus a host of other malefactors, such as mites and pesticides. Beekeeping has never been easy, but without the honeybees and their keepers, hundreds of crops would perish. The money in beekeeping, such as it is, is in the pollination fees, not the honey, and Nordhaus ably conveys the economics of the trade. She is just as able to describe the romance and miracle of honey, however. To make a pound, some 50,000 bees travel a collective 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers: "[B]ees carry the future from tree to tree, and honey is the reward for their labors, nectar distilled by desire and duty into something more."
A smooth-as-honey tour d'horizon of the raggedy world of beekeeping.
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The Beekeeper's LamentHow One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America
By Hannah Nordhaus
Harper PerennialCopyright © 2011 Hannah Nordhaus
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFast Cars and Big Trucks
JOHN MILLER ISN'T FOND OF DEATH. He takes it personally.
Up a few years ago he even bought a Corvette, as if that could
stave it off. It was a red C-5, number 277 produced that year,
brand-new. He purchased it just before he turned forty-six, as
the days lengthened to summer's zenith. Then he promptly fled
California. East of Reno the highway emptied and he inched
the speedometer faster90, 100, 120, 170. He passed a souped-
up Cadillac STS as if it were a dawdling tractor; the driver didn't
even have time to turn his head and gawk. Miller likes numbers,
so he clocked himself and did some silent math. Even going 90,
the sucker in the STS had to wait forty-five seconds for a mile to
pass. Miller? Twenty-two and a half seconds per mile. And just
like that, he was nine hundred miles away, in Hudson, Wyoming.
He stopped there for a meal at Svilar's restaurant with his
old friend Larry Krause.
John Miller is a migratory beekeeper, and so is Larry Krause.
They travel the country with thousands of hives, chasing blooms
and making honey. Miller and Krause have been friends for a
very long time, as is often the case with beekeepers. They are a
dying breed, figuratively speaking. There are fewer and fewer
of them, and they tend to a breedApis mellifera, the European
honey beethat is literally dying. Yet they persist, against all
logic and pecuniary sense, because beekeeperswho have, after
all, chosen careers involving stinging insectsare not terribly
rational people. They are loyal people, however. Miller loves
Larry Krause. He is the kind of guy, Miller says, that they don't
make anymore: kind, gentlemanly, solid, unassuming"a guy
you would introduce to your mother." Krause and Miller help
out with each other's bees and eat nearly every meal together
whenever they attend the same beekeeping conference.
Once a year, as Miller drives from California via Wyoming
to meet his bees in North Dakota, he and Krause go to Svilar's
for a good steak. Then they head down the street to a bar
"littered," Miller says with good-humored disdain, "with signed,
framed pictures of dead liberals"Roosevelt, Kennedy, even
Truman. They end the night at Krause's house, where they feed
the leftover steak to the dog and Miller crashes out in the guest
bed. The next day, he continues on to North Dakota. Beekeepers,
like bees, observe predictable rhythms, and the trip on the
cusp of Miller's forty-sixth birthday was little different: steak,
bar, doggy-bag, bed. Except this time, the car was faster. In the
morning, he hopped back in the Corvette, and by nightfall he
was in North Dakota. Another thousand miles, another day
saved by the speedy sports car, one less calendar square crossed
off on the march to death.
John Miller would probably agree if I said that the Corvette
wasn't simply a way to go fast, or to intimidate other beekeepers
or to impress women. Rather, it was a symbola crude
effort, as purchases made during midlife crises often are, but a
symbol nonetheless: of a life unfettered, an existence unencumbered
by bees and hives, by constant death, by protective suits
and smokers and pasture and comb and feeders and hive tools,
by semis and pallets and forklifts and other utilitarian vehicles.
The Corvette was not utilitarian in the least, although it handled
much more easily than a semi.
Semis are tippy and carry a lot of things. Sometimes they
carry supplies, like corn syrup to feed bees during fallow times,
and forklifts and pallets to lift them, and ropes and netting to
tie them down, and a case of honey "for goodwill at all times,"
Miller says. Sometimes they carry bees loaded four hives high,
which is too much for a flatbed but is stable enough on a drop-
deck trailer. Most of the time. In 2004, which was the first of a
series of bad years for John Miller, his brother Lane was driving
a truck full of bees on Route 287 near Bear Trap Canyon
west of Bozeman, Montana, when he misjudged a curve, sloshed
side to side, and overturned512 beehives, 60,000 bees per hive,
30.7 million bees smeared across the pavement. Lane's elbow
was scraped to the bone and he had to kick out the windshield
to escape. He was lucky, though, because some passing drivers
helped him out before the bees were fully aware of what had
happened. He walked away with the injured arm and only twenty
stings. Soon the bees emerged from their hives and coated the
outside of the truck and its honey-slicked cargo so thickly that
you couldn't see the wreckage under all the layers of distressed
insects falling to the ground in big black gobs. It would be
fourteen hours before a squad of emergency beekeepers
capture them, the road crew and firefighters could clear the wreck,
the state transportation department could clean up the last pools
of honey, and the road could reopen. Traffic returned to normal,
but the lives lost that day were beyond comprehension.
Miller likes to think he's equipped to handle death. If he
weren't a beekeeper, he says, he'd be a mortician, with a "black
suit and a synthetic smile." He knows how to deal with human
mortality. When a neighbor dies, he is often moved to write
eloquent if overwrought tributes. When a bee colony dies, though,
he lacks the tools to describe his feelings. The loss is so profound.
Many people believe that a beehive exists to support its queen
that social insects like bees are motivated by blind, cult-like devotion
to a charismatic leader. But the queen also serves the hive,
chasing some blind imperative to lay egg after egg, thousands a
day, until the end of her productive life, at which point she is set
upon and stung or ripped to death. The worker bees forage for
supplies to keep the queen alive, but their first job is to care for
the young. So really, they are tending to the future.
A typical beehive is a rectangular wooden box, usually
painted white. The top of the box comes off, and that is the way
beekeepers gain access to their bees, though they usually need a
hive tool, a ten-inch, wedge-like steel implement that looks like
a caveman's crowbar, to disengage the flat wooden top from all
the gunk that has accumulated underneath. Within the body
of the hivealso called the brood chamberlie ten top bars,
wooden strips that rest across the rimmed edges of the box and
hold the frames, which are rectangular planes of wax comb that
hang like folders in a file cabinet. Each frame is filled with hundreds
of wax cellssmall interconnected hexagons in which
queens can lay eggs and worker bees can store honey and pollen.
Because the frames aren't attached to each other or to the hive,
the beekeeper can easily remove them one by one as a file clerk
would remove a hanging folder, pulling the frames straight up
and out of the hive to examine the bees or harvest honey. When
a colony is healthy, the frames are teeming with thousands of
bees, crawling and hatching and eating and working. The workers-
the female bees who do all the cleaning, feeding, gathering,
storing, and guardingclamber over and under each other
with purposeful direction; the paunchy droneslarger male
bees whose sole task is to be available to impregnate a queen
wander around looking for handouts. Amid all this chaos, the
queen sits like a rock star in a mosh pit, laying eggs, encircled by
fawning workers who tend to her every need.
That's what a healthy colony looks like. But when a colony
collapseswhen the population dwindles, when the incubating
larvae get too cold, when the workers expire in a huddled,
fluttering mass inside the hive or crawl out the entrances to die
away from home, and when the queen finally dies, toothen it
is an entirely different scene: empty brood cells, scattered
disheartened survivors, plundering robber bees and mice and wax
moths, filth and rot and ruin and invasion and death creeping
in, like a neighborhood abandoned to the junkies. And when
that happens, the real tragedy is not simply the loss of 35,000
or 60,000 or even 80,000 insignificant and perhaps soulless
individuals, but of the futurethe colony's and Miller's. That
sort of loss is harder to comprehend. It leaves Miller wordless or,
more accurately, overflowing with words he is not supposed to
use. The death of a hive is both mind-numbingly ordinary and
mind-blowingly sad. How do you describe that sort of bereavement?
It is not so easy.
PREMATURE DEATH is never part of a beekeeper's plan.
Nonetheless, it is a way of life for him, because the best laid
plans are more like faint suggestions when your livelihood
depends on the well-being of insects. We know this now. In the
last half decade, a third of the national bee herdabout a million
colonieshas died each year, often under mysterious circumstances.
Miller is accustomed to losing bees on a large scale.
"The insect kingdom enjoys little cell repair," he says. "Humans
relate poorly to this truth." If a bee is sick, she doesn't get better.
If she breaks a leg, it doesn't heal. If she ruptures her exoskeletal
protection, she dries out and dies. If her wings are too worn to
fly, she dies. Even when things are going well, a hive can lose a
thousand bees a day as a matter of course. So each year, as wings
and bodies wear out and one generation replaces the next, Miller
oversees the deaths of billions of bees.
But the extent of these recent losses has defied even his
insect-borne realism. It began, for him, in February 2005, soon
after his bees awakened from a short winter dormancy to
commence pollination season. He had trucked his fourteen thousand
beehives from their winter quarters in the potato cellars of
Idaho and unloaded them at his farm in Newcastle, California,
as he does every winter. He'd left them alone for a few days
while they dropped three months' worth of "yellow rain"little
mustard-colored spatters of bee feces that drizzle onto beekeeping
suits and baseball caps and windshields and car finishes and
take three runs through a car wash to remove. Then he'd
delivered the bees to holding yards around Newcastle, and from
there to the almond orchards in California's Central Valley,
where he'd loaded their feeders with corn syrup and waited for
the trees to blossom. They did, as they do every winter, right
around Valentine's Day. But then a horrible thing happened: his
bees did not rise to the occasion.
February is the moment commercial beekeepers wait for all
winter, when 740,000 acres of almonds flower simultaneously
in the Central Valley. Almond pollen is too heavy for the wind
to transport, so the trees depend instead on such pollinators
as bumblebees, ground- and twig-nesting bees, beetles, bats,
and especially honey bees to introduce pollen to stigma, male
to female, to create nuts. Three quarters of a million acres of
blooming trees make a lot of flowers, too many for any ordinary
local pollinator to visit, much less for the wild insects and
birds that once lived full-time in the Central Valley but have
been driven to near extinction by pesticides and habitat loss.
Instead, almond farmers rely on beekeepers like John Miller, who
descend with billions of hardworking bees to accomplish the
onerous but glorious task of turning almond blossoms into nuts
and thence into money. Most commercial beekeepers spend the
whole year keeping their bees alive and healthy for this three
week pollination extravaganza. Miller does, anyhow. Farmers
will pay up to two hundred dollars for a hive of bees to visit
their blossoms, and with honey prices depressed, that's the way
he counts on turning a profit. So February was the time when
his bees were expected to invigorate not only the almonds, but
also his bank accounts. His hives should have been singing with
activity, plump brown bees working doggedly to carry pollen
from blossom to blossom. Instead they emerged sluggish and
wandered in drunken circles at the base of the hives, wingless,
At the time, Miller had set himself the modest goal of "total
global domination" of the beekeeping industry. His family's
business was among the top twenty operations in America, and
he was well on his way to meeting a five-year plan of expanding
his hive count by 50 percent, to fifteen thousand. And then,
suddenly, he wasn't. In a matter of weeks, Miller lost four thousand
hives somewhere around 150 million bees, about 40 percent of
his operation. He wasn't the only one. Some of his colleagues
lost more than 60 percent of their hives. It didn't seem to matter
whose bees they were, how they'd been nurtured, or where they
came from: "the population just cratered." There was nothing
for a beekeeper to do but throw up his hands, take out another
loan, and start again. It was, Miller says, a "profound collapse."
Still, nobody outside the bee world really seemed to notice
the frightening decline in the nation's herd until late 2006, when a
Pennsylvania beekeeper named Dave Hackenberg lost more than
two thirds of his bees. One day in November 2006 November
12, to be specificHackenberg, a gangly, dark-haired man with
a weathered face and a pronouncedly beaky proboscis, went
to move 400 hives he had left on a gravel lot south of Tampa,
Florida, and found 360 of them oddly empty. Full of honey, yes,
and wax and honeycomb and broodbees in various stages of
development from egg to nearly imperceptible worm to white
bee-like mass to baby bee. All that was left in most of them was
a lonely, unattended queen and a clutch of attendants roaming
the empty hivesjust a pocketful, a cup of bees, not the teeming
garbage-bin-sized load he expected. There were hardly any
adult bees to be found. Nor could Hackenberg detect any sign
of the opportunists who might under normal circumstances be
expected to raid the honey stores of collapsed colonies: no robber
bees, no wax moths, no hive beetles. There weren't even any
dead bees at the entrance to the hives. The entire adult population
of the colony had simply flown out en masse and vanished.
Bees don't do that. They are creatures of routine, sticklers for
Excerpted from The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus Copyright © 2011 by Hannah Nordhaus. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Award-winning journalist Hannah Nordhaus has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, the Village Voice, Outside magazine, and other publications. She lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is an excellent book about entomology, interdependency, our delicate ecosystem, and the daily lives of beekeepers. The author also personalizes her research with the story of a certain beekeeper, John Miller. I also enjoyed the references to other authors' snippets about bees, particularly Emily Dickinson and Virgil. Highly recommended!!!
Hannah Nordhaus is an excellent writer. She has managed to turn 266 pages about bees and beekeepers into an un-put-downable, exciting look at our country, our foods, our way of life - and the wonderful world of bees. She introduces us to the feet on the ground, John Miller and his fellow beekeepers, who make a system of pollinate and move on quickly work - so we can find what we want at our local market. This is a book I would recommend to everyone who eats.
It was very refreshing to read a non-fiction science book that wasn’t overly scientific. There are some books that try to reach out to the public, but these books ofen use complex terminology or formulas that can confuse a general reader. The Beekeeper’s Lament is more like ‘science in disguise’. There are some great points about using chemicals on plants and insects as well as a detailed chapter about invasive species, but these ideas are presented in a format that is easy to understand. I also connected to the immediate problem of bees going extinct since bees are so important to the food supply. Although Norhaus does not intend for the book to be persuasive, the reader is left feeling sympathy for the bees and beekeepers by the end of the book. I learned a lot more about bees and the challenges they are facing in our environment today. It was also interesting to find out about the practices of beekeepers today in America and around the world. It's a good read.
The Beekeeper's Lament explores the mysterious and deadly Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) through the eyes of one of the largest, and most charismatic commercial beekeepers in the US. It follows the history of this strange and mostly unprofitable profession from the first keepers who brought bees to North America all the way to the present day characters who battle mites and pesticides to keep their bees alive. You couldn't ask for a better person to introduce you to the magic of bees than John Miller. His quirky humor combined with a down-to-earth recognition of the facts and his vast knowledge of the beekeeping world keeps the reader entertained and informed at the same time. Through his story Hannah Nordhaus convinces the reader that bees are important, fascinating creatures and we should care about their fate. When the narrative strays from Miller into the historical parts it gets a bit dryer and harder to follow. As it flies into the future with the incredible, cutting edge research being done on bees, the pace quickens again. It's guaranteed that this book will change the way you look at bees and honey!
You'll never look at an almond the same way again. Ms. Nordhaus spent many, many days trailing behind John Miller, one of our country's most notable beekeepers. This book illuminates the hard-working and solitary world of those who "keep" the most social and industrious of insects. Great reading if you're interested in learning more about where your food comes from, bees, or beekeepers.
I originally read an excerpt from this book in the magazine in the pocket in front of my seat on an airplane. I was intrigued because I live less than a hour from Newcastle, the winter hub for John MIller, the main character in this book. One of my son's classmate's father was a beekeeper. He got paid twice a year and it was a lot of hard work with plenty of risk involved. 15 years later, I seriously doubt he was able to stay in business, like many people I know who had to get out of farming. The Central Valley of California is a huge, green swath on the map. Yes, there are a lot of almonds. However, there are also tomatoes, corn and walnuts in my county. Rice is grown in the next county over. (There is no county called Modesto. Modesto is a city, Stanislaus is the county). Driving down Interstate 5, there are a myriad of different crops, everything from corn to grapes to watermelon. The problem with bees became public knowledge when Colony Collapse Disorder came to light. Little did I know, this was the least of a beekeepers problems: parasites, disease, theft, weather. The delicate balance of nature that effect farmers affects beekeepers as well. The Beekeeper's Lament follows John Miller, a large scale beekeeper, whose bees pollinate everything from almonds in CA to apples in WA. There is no rest for the weary. Summers are spent in ND, where the bees make clover honey. I bought this book to donate to my library. It was a bit of a slow read for me but the local farmers will get a kick out of reading it.