December 22, 2014

Book Review: The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus

The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus

The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus

Nordhaus introduces us to John Miller, a third-generation commercial beekeeper based in North Dakota who makes his living hauling his hives all over the western United States. He also happens to be a funny, meticulous and conscientious beekeeper who works his trade out of a love and fascination for bees. He certainly doesn’t do it for the money.

Hannah Nordhaus, a journalist with no beekeeping experience, has written a book about the current state of commercial beekeeping in the US that is accessible both to experienced beekeepers and the general public alike. The title refers to the challenges faced by modern beekeepers: not just CCD, but Varroa mites, bad weather, irresponsible beekeepers, cheap imported honey and the reality that, without huge mono-crops like California almonds, commercial beekeepers couldn’t survive.

Nordhaus was granted unfettered access to John Miller, the grandson of the one of the first large-scale migratory beekeepers, as he moves around the country trying to make a living. Miller splits his time between the almond orchards of southern California and his home of North Dakota, with stops in Washington State for a little apple pollination.

The book reminds us that the CCD disaster wasn’t the first crisis faced by beekeepers. In 1670, 50 years after European settlers brought honeybees to America, there were widespread losses that are now traced to American foulbrood. That same disease is one that plagued Miller’s father and grandfather. One might take solace knowing that, despite the damage foulbrood inflicted to those early beekeepers, it is now largely under control. The book also reminds us that the industry has overcome other threats, including European foulbrood, chalkbrood and tracheal mites.

If for nothing else, contemporary beekeepers should read this book for the chapter titled “The Tiny Leviathan” that traces the evolution of the Varroa mite scourge. It is both illuminating and frightening. Referring to losses from Varroa, Nordhaus writes: “So beekeepers have had to learn to live with losses that, twenty years ago, were unthinkable. If a 10 percent loss was considered horrible then, a 20 percent loss isn’t so bad today. Beekeepers now realize they had it easy before the Varroa mite. Their bees still suffered from bacterial invasions, fungal infections, moths, mice, skunks, and bears — it was still difficult to make a profit — but really, beekeeping provided a pleasant lifestyle. You could leave your hives in a meadow and do other things — go fishing, hunting, watch TV. The honey bee would take care of itself. It would forage, build, swarm, run wild, go feral, survive. Today, thanks to the Varroa mite, the European honey bee is, in most of the world, a purely domesticated creature, and one that is on life support, at that. Without beekeepers, Western honey bees would not survive.”

This book is not only about beekeeping, but also is about a highly admirable man. The reader will gain respect and affection for John Miller, who loves bees and perseveres despite the many hardships and financial challenges he endures. Miller treats his bees well, laments when he loses a hive and feels a connection to the natural world through his colonies.

“Ask any beekeeper,” Nordhaus writes. “Bees are addictive — their purposefulness, their solidarity, their endless complexity. … We should be grateful, then, that they [beekeepers] have chosen to do something so imprudent, so daft. The world could not function without them.”

Indeed.

Invest a few hours in The Beekeeper’s Lament. You won’t regret it.

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