My best memory of bees comes courtesy of a developer’s junkyard and a pussy willow tree. The junkyard was across a street from the raw, new development I moved into when I was young and poor. From my kitchen window, I could see a large field of old broken concrete pipes and other construction waste like dirt, gravel, and asphalt. It had been there long enough to be covered with whatever weeds would grow. Surprisingly, there were a lot. The pussy willow was in my own front yard. It was one of the first things I planted when I moved in. It had five branches that grew right from the root – as it turns out, the fatal flaw that finally killed it. But in the early spring, the furry catkins were a delight.
The two combined together to create “bee heaven” for a few weeks in the spring. The bees may have found an ideal spot for a hive in some concrete pipe across the road. All I really know is that for a few weeks, the tree was covered with so many bees that I could hear them a full block away.
They were glorious. I used to stand on my front porch and close my eyes, listening to them buzz around my head as they went about their work of harvesting the nectar from the tree.
Then one spring, a late, wet, and heavy snow caught the pussy willow with its first leaves out and split it five ways right down to the ground. Of course, I replanted. But then the junkyard became another development just like the one I lived in. When I finally sold my little tract house and moved away, you could see an occasional, solitary bee every now and then in the spring. That was all.
Hanna Nordhaus says that feral honeybees are extinct. Our own local beekeeper, Peter Stempel, says there are probably a few since swarms occasionally get away and set up housekeeping in the wild. All I know now is that I see damn few at my house today.
The fascinating details, infused with the even more fascinating personalities in The Beekeeper’s Lament, made it a delight to read. It’s easy to believe that beekeepers are as quirky as she paints them. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became weary of writing Sherlock Holmes mysteries, he made Holmes become a beekeeper in Surrey. It was an inspired choice for a quirky detective.
Delightful and detailed though it is, The Beekeeper’s Lament simply doesn’t tell me as much about beekeeping as I wanted to see. Nordhaus prefers to snare us in a labyrinth of human stories and side issues. For example, a film about the disappearance of bees was recently shown here in Springdale. It exposed the role of industry lobbying that has stopped America from enacting the same kind of serious legislation to protect bees that has been passed in European countries. That controversy is missing in her book.
The growing trend toward smaller, local beekeeping received only a few paragraphs from Nordhaus and most of that simply dismissed it as not important enough. But local beekeeping has been a big issue even here in Springdale. Whether to allow bees was debated intensely when Springdale rewrote the agriculture ordinance just last fall. On the whole, there is a kind of “tunnel vision” throughout the book. Starting on page 211, she devotes a whole section of the book to the depopulation and desolation in North Dakota. Tell that to the hordes of workers who can’t find housing there now due to the development of oil in North Dakota’s Williston Basin. The boom started at about the same time that the book was being written. I wonder how bees get along with oil wells. The book is silent about it.
In the first chapter, Nordhaus asks whether bees have souls as she describes the death of 35,000, 60,000 or even 80,000 individuals when a colony dies. It’s a good question. Asking if bees are part of a philosophy that is quintessentially human highlights the fact that her book is actually not about bees. It’s about us. After all, it’s the beekeeper’s lament, not the bees. The bees are only dying.
She keeps up a good front, calling bees “worthy souls” a few pages later and continually pointing out their stoic qualities. But it’s clear that her heart really isn’t with the bees. There’s no reason it should be. Bees, like the feedlots full of cows or the cavernous warehouses full of chickens, are simply the feedstock of an amazing pipeline that ends at the mouths of billions of humans.
“Farmers depend on honey bees,” according to Nordhaus. They do now. In fact, they always did, but the farmers didn’t always know it because nature just took care of that. Today, man has superseded nature and made bees into an essential part of the assembly line monoculture of thousands of acres of almonds, or apples, or rapeseed – now delicately renamed “canola” by marketing executives to make it more appealing to housewives. The bees, in turn, depend on vats of corn syrup and semi-trucks to haul them to crops for their survival. And the billions of humans rely on all of it working perfectly for their survival. Perhaps the truest phrase in the entire book can be found on page 159, “In complex ecosystems … balances can be tipped by unexpected factors, creating … ecological chain reactions.”
Nordhaus writes, “Bees are … harbingers of retribution for our crimes against nature. Dying bees are symbols of environmental sin, of the synthetic crimes of the chemical industry.” The Beekeeper’s Lament was written in 2009. Back then, it was possible to deny climate change and still keep a straight face because in 2009, industry still had a majority of people convinced that it might not be happening. Back in 2009, it wasn’t undeniably clear that nuclear weapons would be in the hands of people who are certifiably insane. The domino-like march of financial collapse hadn’t leaped to Europe and beyond quite yet. People could be forgiven for not knowing that environmental diseases like autism and asthma are growing at exponential rates.
What a difference only half a decade makes.
The first of the three “Chinese Curses” is, “May you live in interesting times.” No one can claim that the times today are not interesting. The disappearance of bees may be the least of our problems.