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Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis

Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis

5.0 2
by Rowan Jacobsen

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Many people will remember that Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring, but she also warned of a fruitless fall, a time with no pollination and no fruit. The fruitless fall nearly became a reality when, in 2007, beekeepers watched thirty billion bees mysteriously die. And they continue to disappear. The remaining pollinators, essential to the cultivation of a third of


Many people will remember that Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring, but she also warned of a fruitless fall, a time with no pollination and no fruit. The fruitless fall nearly became a reality when, in 2007, beekeepers watched thirty billion bees mysteriously die. And they continue to disappear. The remaining pollinators, essential to the cultivation of a third of American crops, are now trucked across the country and flown around the world, pushing them ever closer to collapse. Fruitless Fall does more than just highlight this growing agricultural catastrophe. It emphasizes the miracle of flowering plants and their pollination partners, and urges readers not to take the abundance of our Earth for granted. A new afterword by the author tracks the most recent developments in this ongoing crisis.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

With a passion that gives this exploration of colony collapse disorder real buzz, Jacobsen (A Geography of Oysters) investigates why 30 billion honeybees-one-quarter of the northern hemisphere's population-vanished by the spring of 2007. He identifies the convergence of culprits-blood-sucking mites, pesticide buildup, viral infections, overused antibiotics, urbanization and climate change-that have led to habitat loss and the destruction of "the beautiful mathematics of the hive." Honeybees are undergoing something akin to a nervous breakdown; they aren't pollinating crops as effectively, and production of commercial American honey, already undercut by cheap Chinese imports, is dwindling, even as beekeepers truck stressed honeybees cross-country to pollinate the fields of desperate farmers. Jacobsen pessimistically predicts that "our breakfasts will become... a lot more expensive" as the supply of citrus fruits, berries and nuts will inevitably decrease, though he expresses faith that more resilient bees can eventually emerge, perhaps as North American honeybees are crossbred with sturdier Russian queen bees. The author, now tending his own hives, invests solid investigative journalism with a poet's voice to craft a fact-heavy book that soars. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Culinary writer Jacobsen (A Geography of Oysters, 2007, etc.) takes a laid-back yet terrifying look at the conundrum of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has devastated honeybees. While CCD received media attention for its sheer weirdness, Jacobsen focuses on the larger ecological implications, particularly regarding the food chain. "80 percent of the food we put in our mouths," he reminds us, "relies on pollination somewhere down the line." While this delicate process is taken for granted in the era of industrial agriculture, it still depends upon the participation of surprisingly fragile insect populations. Indeed, one contributor to this fragility has been the industry's reliance upon "busing" honeybee hives as rentals from farm to farm. CCD's rise has been sudden, mysterious and brutal: By spring 2007, "the losses threatened an ancient way of life, an industry, and one of the foundations of civilization." The author builds his narrative around beekeepers' efforts to contend with CCD, beginning in 2006, when it became clear that their carefully managed hives were emptying out. Some force was disrupting the complex society of each hive, which divides pollination, honey-making and reproduction into regimented tasks. As beekeepers and scientists from all over the country shared their dispiriting experiences, they discerned that CCD attacked both hive behavior and the bees' immune systems. Jacobsen identifies numerous potential culprits, all linked with the stressors created by the intersections of factory farming, globalization and the beekeepers' craft. The suggestion that cell phones were to blame was debunked early; other possibilities, including pesticides, geneticallymodified crops and exotic maladies made resistant through cross-breeding, seem harder to dismiss. The author writes from a well-informed "green" perspective, in a breezy, humorous tone at odds with the ominous implications of his tale. For many readers, it may make the mystery of CCD easier to comprehend. Intelligent, important assessment of a confusing phenomenon and its potentially catastrophic implications. Agent: Stephany Evans/Imprint Agency
From the Publisher

“A spiritual successor to Rachel Carson's seminal eco-polemic Silent Spring…Jacobsen's concern for the fate of the honey bee population is easily contagious…The Verdict: Read.” —Time

“Mr. Jacobsen warns that we may be on the brink of just such a disaster…a detailed history of honeybee biology… [Jacobsen's] analysis is helpful and instructive.” —Wall Street Journal

“A delightful yet sobering look at how different our lives would be if bees disappear…an important book about one of our natural allies that, like us, is caught in difficult times.” —Arizona Republic

“Past a certain point, we can't make nature conform to our industrial model. The collapse of beehives is a warning--and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out how to work with bees not as masters but as partners offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our ecological dilemmas.” —Bill McKibben, author 34 of Deep Economy

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The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis

By Rowan Jacobsen
Copyright © 2008

Rowan Jacobsen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-537-4


I'm standing in my kitchen on a July morning, serving up breakfast for my family. Honey-Nut O's for my son, almond granola for my wife and me, all piled high with blueberries and cherries. Wedges of melon, glasses of apple cider, and mugs of coffee on the side. It's a delicious breakfast, its colors, textures, and flavors a feast for the senses. And it wouldn't exist without honey bees. Take away the bees and we'd be left with nothing but wind-pollinated oats and maybe some milk to wet them.

Berries, cherries, melons, and apples are all fruits, you see, and fruits are special. Almonds and other nuts are simply the large seeds inside fruits. (Almonds are in the family of stone fruits, like peaches and plums, and do have a fruit around them, but it's inedible. With a peach you eat the flesh and discard the nut; with an almond the reverse.) Coffee beans come wrapped in fruit jackets, too. Even many of the foods we think of as vegetables-cucumbers and tomatoes and peppers and squash-are fruits. And fruits, unlike true vegetables, or meat, or just about anything else we eat, want to be eaten. Nature has designed them-with a little help from human plant breeders-to be as eye-catching and irresistibly delicious to animals as possible.

And they are. No matter how many rungs up the industrial food chain I sit, no matter how far removed from my primate roots, I still react to the dazzling sapphire of a ripe blueberry in a satisfyingly primitive way. My mouth waters, my hands reach, and I am its slave. My nine-year-old son, a full-fledged frugivore, will hurry past cakes and cookies to get to a plate of pink, juicy watermelon.

The plan, which is certainly working on us, is that the animals eat the fruit and unwittingly spread the plant's seeds around-a major challenge for an immobile life-form. It's an ancient covenant, one that has served them and us well, and one that's still fairly obvious, since not so long ago we primates were playing a significant role in the process.

But there is another covenant, equally essential and much easier for us to overlook because it rarely involves large creatures. We've done a spectacular job of ignoring it across all levels of society, with catastrophic consequences that are only now beginning to hit home.

The basic story of plant life, familiar to every grade-schooler, is that the plant grows and has a flower, and the flower turns into a seed-bearing fruit, and the fruit falls to the ground, where the cycle starts all over again. In the common imagination, the process happens all on its own. The fruit is the event. The flower is nothing really, just the herald of the fruit. Eye candy. Growing up, I don't think I even connected the flower and the fruit. Flowers grew along roadsides-daisies and hawkweed and Queen Anne's lace. Fruit came from the supermarket. They were two things trees and weeds produced, not necessarily related.

But, of course, flowers are not there to please landscape artists. They are supremely functional, and their function is sex. Flowers' purpose is to swap genetic material with other individuals of the same species and reproduce. When that happens successfully, a fruit grows out of the flower.

No flower, no fruit. It's that simple.

The presence of a flower doesn't guarantee fruit. Most flowers have male and female parts. The anthers-the long filaments with pads on the end-hold grains of pollen, the plant equivalent of sperm. To make a fruit, that pollen needs to be carried to the stigma, the central column that is the female receptor. From there, it can combine with the ovule-the plant equivalent of an egg-in the ovary (usually hidden within the flower). A seed is born, and fruit is soon to follow.

Some flowers can use their own pollen to fertilize their ovules, but this doesn't accomplish the gene mixing that is the whole point of sexual reproduction, so most can be fertilized only by the pollen from a different individual. The trick is to get the pollen from one flower to another. A few of our food plants-primarily corn, oats, and the other grains-use wind to do the job. Make vast quantities of powdery, flyweight pollen, cast it to the winds, and cross one's metaphorical fingers, it's like direct mail, or Internet spam: You need to send out a million if you hope to get a single hit. When your car is caked in yellow pine pollen, or your nasal passages are swollen with ragweed pollen, you can be sure that a wind pollinator is broadcasting.

Direct mail is pretty wasteful, so most of our food plants rely on courier service instead. Somebody picks up the pollen package from one flower and delivers it directly to another flower of the same species. Most birds and mammals aren't going to fit this bill; they are way too big to handle sand-sized grains of pollen. Insects, on the other hand, are perfect.

For 150 million years, insects have served as sexual handmaidens to the flowering plants. Most plants on earth today can't reproduce without them. Of course, they aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. It takes a bribe. Protein-rich pollen makes good health food, but nectar-energy-rich sugar water contained in tiny wells in most flowers-seals the deal. The bugs visit the flower to drink the nectar and in the process brush against the sticky pollen grains, which become attached to them. When the bugs fly to the next flower for more nectar, some of the pollen is transferred to the new stigma. Wham, barn, thank you, ma'am.

Thousands of insect species feed on nectar and pollen. Some 80 million years ago, one group of them, the bees, made it a specialty. Of the twenty thousand species of bees, only one has become a true artisan of nectar, developing a worldwide human culture around itself. That insect is Apis mellifera, the honey bee. And how this one life-form wound up shouldering so much of the industrial food chain on its tiny back is one of the subjects of this book.

When we think of productive human-animal partnerships, we tend to think of the dog or the horse. The dog can't lay claim to more than improving our quality of life, plus a bit of guard duty and seeing-eye work, but the horse brought agriculture, not to mention transportation, to a whole new level. Yet fossil fuel technology relegated the horse to country fair sideshows. The same cannot be said about the honey bee. In fact, as industrial agriculture has come to dominate world production, and as exotic crops were grown on new continents, it has been forced to rely more and more heavily on middle-aged men with their wooden boxes of bees and tin smokers. This is an astonishing Achilles' heel for industries increasingly devoted to high-tech solutions.

It's also quite wonderful. To witness an orchard full of bees merrily nuzzling flowers and packing honey into the hive-"on the flow," as beekeepers say-is to feel that all is right with the world. We may not get food from flowers, as bees do, but at some primordial level, we share the same tastes. We are attracted to the same shapes, scents, and colors. We may not be able to "get" a fly or a dung beetle, but we get a bee.

And we admire them. The techniques bees have developed to help in their mission (dancing, navigation, pheromone communication), the extraordinary array of products they make (honey, propolis, wax, royal jelly), and the amazing social structure of the hive are all signs of an estimable intelligence wholly unlike the human variety and well worth comprehending. Bees can do things no other creature can.

For now, suffice it to say that plenty of varieties of insect are capable of pollinating the blueberries stippling my son's cereal (even the black fly, pariah of the Northeast, contributes), but only honey bees come in convenient, mobile boxes of fifty thousand and have a passion for hoarding concentrated nectar in astonishing quantities. This passion has given us the natural miracle of honey, but it also means that a hive of honey bees can cross-pollinate twenty-five million flowers in a single day. Try plucking solitary black flies or hummingbirds out of the air and exhorting them to do the same. Honey bees are the most enthusiastic, best-organized migrant farmworkers the planet has ever seen, and today the majority of U.S. bees spend the year traveling the country on the backs of flatbeds, fertilizing America's crops.

But why do we need them? Didn't these crops exist before rent-a-pollinator?

The reason you need migrant workers of any kind is because no one local will do the job. In many human communities, there aren't enough locals left to work the crops. With insects, it's the same. A vast monocrop of California almonds leaves no natural habitat where wild insects could live. If a New Jersey blueberry farm is hemmed by suburbs, it's probably out of the three-mile range of any local, stationary honey bees. If flower sex is to happen in such landscapes, bussed honey bees are the only option. Large-scale agriculture can no longer exist without them.

It used to be that beekeepers were the ones begging farmers to let them set their hives in a field or grove. An acre of apple blossoms is a windfall for a honey bee colony. The farmer got his apples fertilized, and the beekeeper fed his flock and got his honey. Everybody won. Usually no money changed hands. For years, however, due to a complicated mix of factors that we'll explore in later chapters, honey bee populations have been crashing in Europe and America, while the acres of crops needing pollination have expanded. The free market kicked in: Too many crops and not enough pollination equals farmers desperate to get some honey bees in their fields and willing to pay for it.

The whole situation snuck up on us. A century ago cranberry growers were already observing that their yield doubled if a hive was nearby, but for most of human history hives have always been nearby. In Europe up through the nineteenth century, a hive or two was kept on every farm. Many old stone houses still have niches in their outer walls for beehives. Pollination was plentiful.

When Europeans settled the New World, they brought apple trees with them, but, removed from their Old World habitats and pollination partners, many of the trees fared poorly. In settlements that also imported honey bee hives, however, apple trees took off-so successfully that most people assume they are native (as American as apple pie). Fortunately (for both the settlers and the apple trees) honey bees were popular with the colonists. They had been introduced to Virginia by 1622 and Massachusetts by 1639, and had covered the East Coast (by swarm or human transport) before long. A British officer in the Revolutionary War wrote that in Pennsylvania "almost every farmhouse has 7 or 8 hives of bees." George Washington kept hives at Mount Vernon in 1787. By then, people were already forgetting that bees hadn't always been on the scene, though Thomas Jefferson tried to set the record straight: "The honeybee is not a native of our country ... The Indians concur with us in the tradition that it was brought from Europe, but when and by whom we know not. The bees have generally extended themselves into the country a little in advance of the settlers. The Indians, therefore, call them the white man's fly, and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites."

Both the white men and the bees kept coming. Washington Irving's book A Tour on the Prairies includes his account of an 1832 honey hunt in Oklahoma, about as far as honey bees had advanced at that point:

It is surprising in what countless swarms the bees have overspread the Far West within but a moderate number of years. The Indians consider them the harbinger of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and buffalo retire. We are always accustomed to associate the hum of the bee-hive with the farmhouse and flower-garden, and to consider those industrious little animals as connected with the busy haunts of man, and I am told that the wild bee is seldom to be met with at any great distance from the frontier. They have been the heralds of civilization, steadfastly preceding it as it advanced from the Atlantic borders, and some of the ancient settlers of the West pretend to give the very year when the honey-bee first crossed the Mississippi. The Indians with surprise found the mouldering trees of their forests suddenly teeming with ambrosial sweets, and nothing, I am told, can exceed the greedy relish with which they banquet for the first time upon this unbought luxury of the wilderness.

As settlers spread across the continent, they did so in partnership with the honey bee, whose omnivorous tastes allowed a multitude of European and Asian fruits and vegetables to thrive. The New World was to their liking. The pioneers, having little concept of pollination, probably never questioned why their European crops flourished in the New World. They just happened to have the bees around for honey. They had unwittingly brought a particularly European fertility with them.

At times, the ignorance was so astounding that it's a wonder American agriculture didn't collapse under the weight of its own stupidity. Well into the twentieth century, many parts of America believed that bees robbed plants of their vitality. Utah even passed a law in 1929 banning the import of honey bees into the state because they "took the nectar required by the alfalfa blossoms to set seed."

This misinformation persisted despite Easterners having long observed that fruit was choicer and more abundant in areas near hives. John Harvey Lovell's 1919 book, The Flower and the Bee, describes hives being placed in cranberry bogs, just as they are today, and even in cucumber greenhouses. "Without bees or hand-pollination, not a cucumber would be produced." For apples, he describes an eerily familiar scene as he explains why wild bees are not sufficient pollinators:

With the planting of orchards by the square mile, their number became wholly inadequate to pollinate efficiently this vast expanse of bloom. This difficulty is met by the introduction of colonies of the domestic bee. No other insect is so well adapted for this purpose. In numbers, diligence, perception and apparatus for carrying pollen it has no equal. In orchard after orchard the establishment of apiaries has been followed by an astonishing gain in the fruit-crop; and today it is generally admitted that honey bees and fruit culture must go together.

And so they have. By allowing planting patterns that could never exist in nature, and adapting to a wide variety of environments, the honey bee has been something of a landscape architect of the American pastoral, remaking the countryside in its own vision. Farmers worried about land and water and sun, but they never had to think about the bugs that would set their fruit. After World War II, as machinery and pesticides enabled farms to expand from family operations into vast enterprises, rented honey bees became indispensable to many farms.

What was a nice little sideline in the 1960s became the chief source of income for many commercial beekeepers by the 1990s. Fertility is at a premium. No beekeeper is eager to truck his bees around the country, but as world honey prices disintegrated in the face of cheap Chinese competition, beekeepers found that they couldn't survive on honey alone. Pollination filled the gap-first locally, then farther and farther afield as beekeepers confronted a choice between a migratory business and no business at all.

America didn't invent migratory beekeeping. Egyptians followed the bloom up and down the Nile thousands of years ago, floating their hives on barges. Europeans used the Danube, mules, and their own backs, always seeking to extend the season. But only in America did tractor trailers and five-thousand-mile circuits become commonplace.

Then, in fall 2006, the corroded bottom finally fell out of the American beekeeping barrel. A mysterious syndrome began wiping out honey bee colonies from coast to coast. The number of hives, which had been at 6 million during World War II, and 2.6 million in 2005, fell below 2 million for the first time in memory. Soon the syndrome had a name as vague as its cause: colony collapse disorder. By the time the media got wind of the syndrome, it was just called CCD.


Excerpted from FRUITLESS FALL by Rowan Jacobsen Copyright © 2008 by Rowan Jacobsen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rowan Jacobsen is the James Beard Award- winning author of A Geography of Oysters and Fruitless Fall. Jacobsen's writings on food, the environment, and their interconnected nature have appeared in the New York Times, Wild Earth, Harper's, Eating Well, and Newsweek. He lives in rural Vermont with his wife and son.
Rowan Jacobsen is the James Beard Award- winning author of A Geography of Oysters and Fruitless Fall. Jacobsen's writings on food, the environment, and their interconnected nature have appeared in the New York Times, Wild Earth, Harper's, Eating Well, and Newsweek. He lives in rural Vermont with his wife and son.

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Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Without bees we would have a diet of oats and squash for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Well, ok, we could have any foods that are pollinated by wind or are self pollinating. Bees are essential to the foods we all enjoy and probably take for granted. Jacobsen's book is compared to Silent Spring. Unfortunately, today's bee population, that is experiencing colony collapse disorder (CCD), needs a much more complex solution than just stopping spraying with DDT. This is not a book filled with doom and gloom. Jacobsen's style is upbeat. He describes bees not just from our point of view, but the bees' point of view. He tells us how they are born, grow up, receive education with guaranteed full careers. No resumes necessary. He tells us what the bees need so that beekeepers do not continue to check a hive one day, only to find an empty structure the next. No dead bees around. No swarm. Just the hive, perhaps, with honey. Jacobsen describes the spread of bees throughout the United States, and writes about the studies of bees in Germany, France, and other European countries. His year's study of bee CCD includes written research, as well as delightful though concerned conversations he has had with beekeeers, individually or in groups. He tells of the trucking of beehives to South Dakota to California--their living conditions and their burn-out from working year-round. The price of my almonds as Christmas gifts will probably increase, not because of any California drought, but because the bee population is limited and overworked. The almond blossoms that I enjoyed this February and March might never mature for harvesting in the fall, to be roasted, flavored, salted, sliced, ground, and canned. Almonds may not be the only fruitless trees in autumn. Jacobsen emphasizes how critical bees are in all pollination. Without bees the plants would not have sex. No sex, no produce in the grocery store. Jacobsen's thorough study of bees shows how vital they are in producing so very much food that we currently have. I like corn, but not for 3 meals every day.
bluegrasskyle More than 1 year ago
Fruitless Fall tells of a coming agricultural crisis across the globe if our system of managing bees and crops doesn't change soon. There are many surprising predictions supported by hard evidence. One sobering example is that we may loose the Florida citrus industry in another 10-15 years due to invasive exotic species and widespread chemical use. The most important theme in this book is the plight of the beekeeper. Profit margins are too slim, pests and diseases too numerous, and outside support too scattered for them to sustain the system unless something drastically changes. The author does an excellent job of providing an easy to understand synopsis of honeybee biology. He sprinkles in anecdotes from beekeepers around the US in a way that makes the book interesting on a personal level, and personifies the traits of honeybees to make them easy to understand. His humor was also well placed and kept me turning the page. Fruitless Fall may seem only pertinent to beekeepers and farmers, but it affects everyone. Even if your only concern is a diverse selection of food in your grocery store or low prices, you'll find something potentially life changing in these pages.
I_like_clean_reads More than 1 year ago
Actually, my title should be, Everyone Concerned with their Food supply should read! Great book, but disconcerting about the plight of our honey bees, but I learned so much about it. For example, I didn't know that: beekeepers ship their bees here and there to rent out their hives, especially to the almond growers in California; that many who grow sunflowers in great numbers dip the seeds first in an insecticide, then plant them, and this, along with the overworking of the bees, is helping kill them off; and although I did know of the big die-off of the honey bee earlier in this century, I did not realize all the reasons behind it. This book details many reasons for everyone to be concerned about the use of pesticides and herbicides, and those of us who have small farms have already seen a major decline in the numbers and availability of honey bees in pollinating our gardens. It's unfortunate, however, that the majority of folks will not read this book, and it's also unfortunate that there are not stricter laws governing the usage of pesticides and herbicides and no training associated with people using them. Wake up, folks; we're losing the honey bees, and if these chemicals are killing off the honey bees, think of what they are doing to us as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book truly enspired me to make a difference in the world and help protect the honey bees!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gone is the honey. Dew finds no rest on the dirt the black birds elicit the last sigh. Blue moon's enterprise plays no more and the Harvest moon reflects itself. Gone is the honey,the money, the bee, and the wailing of the last bird. Gone. I understand a fruitless fall upon a safe porch gazing at the world into another's brown/green eyes holding a small sailboat made of paper. Read Fruitless Fall it will not be Fruitless.
runebear More than 1 year ago
Please spread the news: we need to act on this now or all plant eating animals and the predators that eat them (including us) will be lost! All 2012 predictions include famine as a cause for our destruction... our own fault if we let this happen!