Monday, July 11, 2011

Hannah Nordhaus's "The Beekeeper’s Lament"

Award-winning journalist Hannah Nordhaus has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, the Village Voice, Outside magazine, and other publications.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America, and reported the following:
Right again, Ford Madox Ford! Turn to page 99 in The Beekeeper’s Lament, and you won’t just see the horizon-view of the book—you will literally see the horizon, from a high point in an almond orchard, where mile after monocropped mile of pale pink petals extend from the western delta to the to eastern mountains: “a monumental reshaping of the landscape,” I say, “grass- and shrubland eclipsed by a bloom so enormous you could certainly glimpse it from space.”

There are 750,000 acres of almond trees planted in California’s Central Valley, and they all bloom in February, and each and every single blossom requires the visit of a bee to produce an almond—a commodity that has become so valuable that every Valley farmer with a pulse has ripped up his cotton and peaches and grapes and alfalfa, and grafted almond trees in their stead. Almond growers pay beekeepers well to haul their hives (1.5 million of them; 2/3 of all the beehives in the country) to California for the almond bloom. With honey prices depressed, most beekeepers make all of their profit during those three fertile weeks of February. But the almond orchards have also vectored all sorts of horrible pests and pathogens through the nation’s apiaries. The Central Valley almond belt has been compared to a “giant brothel,” where bees from all over the country “swap spit” and emerge the worse for it.

The Beekeeper’s Lament follows John Miller, a fourth-generation migratory beekeeper, as he drags his 10,000 beehives across the American West, pollinating almonds, oranges, cherries and apples in California and Washington State, and making honey in North Dakota. It is a labor of love: between stings, mites, mystery diseases, bad weather, poor harvests, cut-rate imported honey, nasty neighbors—and did I mention stings?—there is nothing easy about keeping bees these days. But Miller does it anyway. He persists—even though it’s backbreaking work; even though it pays poorly; and even though—worst of all—he is now fighting a relentless tide of pests and pathogens invading beehives, faster and faster, in wave after breathless wave. “And for that,” I say in the book, “we have the almond to thank.”
Learn more about the book and author at Hannah Nordhaus's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue