Everybody knows that honey bees make honey. And everybody knows that beekeepers put on goofy white suits and coax the bees to part with the sweet results of their labor. But if you want to know more and are interested in the mysteries of how honey actually gets from the clover blossom to the surface of your toasted bagel, you'll want to read The Beekeeper's Lament, by journalist Hannah Nordhaus.
The story centers around John Miller, carrying on his multi-generational family legacy as one of the biggest beekeepers in the US. Rotating a few thousand hives - each containing 50-80,000 bees - on an annual schedule, he and his workers start the season pollinating the massive almond groves of central California, install new queens, load the hives on semi-trailers and hop on the Interstate, heading to North Dakota for the summer and then trucking back west to Idaho for the winter. Each year Miller struggles to make a profit pollinating crops and harvesting honey in a business that is chock full of unpredictable obstacles.
The list of foes Nordhaus documents is formidable. Aggressive bee genetics, bad weather, myriad pesticides and a continual parade of nasty bee pathogens are just a few of the ways that beekeeping can go wrong. Add the constant threat of hive robbers and competition with unscrupulous honey adulterators and it's rather astonishing that honest beekeepers ever make any money. The author emphasizes how worrisome the situation is; if the beekeepers go under, so does a large - and delicious - segment of American agriculture.
Despite such pessimism, Nordhaus makes it clear that Miller loves to be with his bees and she takes pleasure in describing all the fascinating aspects of bee biology and behavior. She also includes some interesting side topics, like queen rearing, almond farming and rural economic decline that help add additional perspective to this view of commercial beekeeping life. She doesn't hesitate to go into quite a bit of detail, but keeps the writing appropriate for any general science reader.
While I'm not a bee expert, I have spent much of the last two summers as a beginning beekeeper and find her discussion both accurate and informative. She provides new ideas that I can use in my hives and also sheds a lot of light on the honey industry, teaching me some of the master's secrets.
Published in 2011, the book is up to date on the latest developments in honey bee epidemiology, including Colony Collapse Disorder. She also discusses much of the current research into Varroa mite control, both chemical and natural.
Delivering joy as well as warnings, The Beekeeper's Lament is a nicely balanced tribute to two frequently unacknowledged laborers in America's prodigious agricultural bounty, the honey bee and the beekeeper. Without both participants, a visit to the supermarket produce section would be much less tantalizing. A recommended read for beekeepers, insectophiles or anyone interested in the finding out more about honey and honey bees.
Reviews of other bee books:
The Queen Must Die
Beekeeping for Dummies
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