In Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, Rowan Jacobsen explores the causes and repercussions of the mysterious phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that has been threatening the stability of commercial beekeeping operations in the United States and Europe since late 2006. Jacobsen uses the mystery of CCD to tell the bigger story of bees and their essential connection to our daily lives. With their disappearance, we will not just be losing honey. Industrial agriculture depends on honey bees to pollinate most fruits, nuts and vegetables -- more than a third of the food we eat. Rowan Jacobsen is also the James Beard Award-winning author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America.
Here's what he had to say regarding honey bees and CCD:
What originally sparked your interest in beekeeping?
I'd been interested in bees for years, and it was because of the social structure of the hive, the sense that this was a superorganism with a very different sort of intelligence from us. The nectar dance, the division of labor, and so on. Then, while I was working on my book on CCD, I got to hang out with a number of beekeepers, and discovered that it was really fun to work with bees, and not scary at all. It actually changed my whole relationship with insects (and I think bees make excellent ambassadors for doing this). Now, when a bug lands on me, I see an individual face staring back, with its own agenda. And I think about that agenda.
What has been your most exciting moment as a beekeeper?
My most exciting moment was probably picking up my two hives from Kirk Webster and driving them the two hours back to my house in the back of my Subaru, listening to this ominous, throbbing buzz inside the car. (The hive entrance was blocked, but still...) The next exciting moment was a few days later, when my apple trees bloomed, and again, the whole tree seemed to be throbbing. I just stood underneath and listened. It was also great to bring my so, who was about 10 at the time, out to the hive, to sit near the entrance and watch the workers come and go and talk about what they were up to. In November, a bear ripped apart my hives, and that was the end of that.
Have you heard of any documented examples of Colony Collapse Disorder in New England?
The thing about CCD is it's a syndrome -- a cluster of symptoms that occur together, rather than a disease with an identified agent -- so it's impossible to say for sure when a hive has CCD. You can just watch an apiary collapse and say, "Yup, sure looks like CCD to me." You can't prove it, and I suspect that there are multiple agents out there that cause colonies to collapse in similar patterns and get labeled CCD. But definitely some of the big migratory beekeepers that work the cranberries in Massachusetts and blueberries in Maine have succumbed. And I know plenty of small beekeepers in Vermont who have suffered CCD-like collapses.
When people ask me if I decided to become a backyard beekeeper to save the bees I tell them no. If you just want to help save the bees I tell them plant bee-friendly plants in their yard and let the dandelions grow. In your book and elsewhere I've read how monocrops and suburbia have bees traveling further for food sources. What would you tell someone who wants to help save the bees to do?
Exactly right. I tell people who want to save the bees to think about bumblebees, rather than honeybees. They are our native pollinators, vital to a number of ecosystems, and all they ask is that you give them some flowers to plumb. I love watching bumblebees in my gardens. Plus, they are maintenance free, and it's very hard to get one to sting you (or any little feet that may be wandering around your yard).
Sharon Kitchens, a blogger and neo-homesteader in Maine, is learning the ins and outs of country living from bees to chickens by luck and pluck and a whole lot of expert advice. Formerly, she worked for Miramax Films and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.