The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

by Hannah Nordhaus
The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

by Hannah Nordhaus


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061873256
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 05/24/2011
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 703,602
Product dimensions: 7.84(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Hannah Nordhaus is the author of the critically acclaimed national bestseller The Beekeeper’s Lament, which was a PEN Center USA Book Awards finalist, Colorado Book Awards finalist, and National Federation of Press Women Book Award winner. She has written for the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, Village Voice, and many other publications.

Read an Excerpt

The Beekeeper's Lament

How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America
By Hannah Nordhaus

Harper Perennial

Copyright © 2011 Hannah Nordhaus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061873256

Chapter One

Fast 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 faster—90, 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 breed—Apis mellifera, the European
honey bee—that is literally dying. Yet they persist, against all
logic and pecuniary sense, because beekeepers—who have, after
all, chosen careers involving stinging insects—are 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 symbol—a 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 overturned—512 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 hive—also called the brood chamber—lie 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 cells—small 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 guarding—clamber over and under each other
with purposeful direction; the paunchy drones—larger 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
collapses—when 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, too—then 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 future—the 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 herd—about a million
colonies—has 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,
desiccated, blasé.
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 specific—Hackenberg, 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 brood—bees 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 hives—just 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Fast Cars and Big Trucks 1

2 Beekeepers' Roulette 27

3 The Tiny Leviathan 55

4 Faustian Bargains 85

5 Trespasses 115

6 Charismatic Mini-Fauna 143

7 Survivor Stock 171

8 The Human Swarm 203

9 Bittersweet Bounty 231

10 Next Year, Right? 255

Acknowledgments 267

What People are Saying About This

Trevor Corson

“Rollicking, buzzing, and touching meditation on mortality....You’ll never think of bees, their keepers, or the fruits (and nuts) of their labors the same way again.”

Bernd Heinrich

“I loved The Beekeeper’s Lament. With great reporting and great writing, Hannah Nordhaus gives a new angle on an ever-evolving topic. You’ll learn a lot.”

Elizabeth Kolbert

“Hannah Nordhaus has written an engaging account of the men and insects who put food on our tables. The Beekeeper’s Lament is a sweet, sad story.”

Maggie Koerth-Baker

“Some of the best narrative and storytelling I’ve had the pleasure of reading since Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks...You must read this book.”

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