Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America, by Hannah Nordhaus (author), Xe Sands (narrator)

Tantor Audio, May 2016 (original publication May 2011)

Bees pollinate plants that produce about a third of America's food supply, and while once the bees mostly were wild "volunteers," the European honeybee, the most reliable pollinator in North America, is largely gone from the wild. Agriculture relies on professional, commercial beekeepers, who travel with their hives to the fields and orchards that need them

It's useful to remember that the honeybee was never native here anyway. It came with the Europeans. The single most profitable crop that it pollinates is California's almond crop, which is also not native to North America. It's native to the Middle East and southern Asia.

The almond is booming in the US. The honeybee is in trouble, and both dependent on and threatened by the increasing dominance of the almond crop in its life cycle.

John Miller, a beekeeper with a large and, by beekeeper standards, pretty successful business, from a family with four generations of beekeeping history, is the primary focus of this book, but not by any means the only beekeeper we learn about.

We tend to think of beekeeping being about honey, but because of both imported honey, and a lack of any agreed or enforced standards for either purity or labeling, honey is not where beekeepers make their money. Profit in beekeeping comes from the migratory pollenization business--and increasingly primarily from almond pollenization. Pollenization of other other crops is increasingly marginal, with a primary benefit keeping the hives fed and healthy. In some cases, it produces good honey, but often the best honey comes from plants that are regarded as invasive weeds More useful crops may or may not produce honey that's good for anyone but the bees.

Some very useful crops produce honey that even the bees don't want, if they can reach other plants than the ones they've been brought in to pollinate.

And on top of all that, are all the bad things that can happen to bees and their hives. Colony Collapse Disorder made headlines a few years ago. The headlines have faded, but the cause hasn't been identified, and colony collapse still happens. In addition, there are a lot of parasites and diseases that can damage or completely wipe out hives. There is constant research to protect the bees, but often as one parasite or disease is defeated, another appears.

Oh, and there are different varieties of bees, some better pollinators and some worse, some forming larger hives and some smaller, some Africanized honey bees. Or, as the Africanized bees are colloquially known, "killer bees."

The Africanized bees are not as aggressive as their reputation, and may become less so as they continue to hybridize with the European varieties in North America, but they are sufficiently more aggressive that American beekeepers are not eager to adopt them. They are, though, good pollinators, and make good honey, and are more resistant to some threats than European honey bees.

On the other hand, they are less cold hardy, which is a major problem in more northerly regions. They can't get through a northern winter in a protected cellar with a good supply of honey or corn syrup.

Beekeepers are always hoping next year will be a good year.

Beekeeping, its history in North America, and its realities today are fascinating and complex, and well worth a listen, or a read.


I bought this audiobook.

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