“Bee bread” and “royal jelly”

October 09, 2009

One of the winners at the Santa Monica Public Library Green Book Prize event this weekend was Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. While the title may scare off non-sciencey types, I can say with certainty that this is the most suspenseful book about insects I’ve ever read. From cover to cover, Jacobsen weaves a fascinating story about the honey bee and its vital place in nature’s most basic processes – and our agricultural economy. Jacobsen refreshes the memory of those of us who may not remember our elementary school biology by giving us the rundown on the honey bee’s role in the pollination scheme, managing to make the story of how bees communicate and eventually pollinate sound like a recap of a raucous wedding reception (think conga line, but with stingers – Jacobsen terms it the “waggle dance”).

Jacobsen - awards

It’s not all fun and games, though. The honey bee population is in severe decline, and for several chapters Jacobsen scopes out several possible culprits, telling us a lot about what’s wrong with our current agricultural situation in the process. The overarching problem is a rather vague one: CCD – colony collapse disorder. The cause for this unsettling disappearance of bees doesn’t suddenly become crystal clear; rather, we gradually gets the sickening feeling that there are a lot of things going very, very wrong. Honey bees are being trucked all over the country in the name of pollination – from summer clover feasts in South Dakota to citrus trees in Florida to almond groves in California (the “almond orgy,” Jacobsen calls it – and accurately so, since California has 82% of the world almond market and requires 1.5 million full-strength hives for pollination). Beekeepers spray chemical after chemical on their hives, hoping to ward off bloodthirsty varroa mites. Nearby crops are being treated by pesticides that may seem harmless to the plants, but affect the bees’ ability to communicate. Strange, foreign diseases start infecting the bees. It seems that the bees’ immune systems are being weakened - not by one specific malady, but by the changes taking place around them as our ever-demanding economy dictates where they go and how they’re treated.

Jacobsen paints a frightening picture of what Earth would (and will, he argues) look like without those precious pollinators, and helps us remember how complex and fragile the natural world is – something we take for granted when we add berries to our morning cereal or munch on an afternoon snack of granola. Rather than proposing clear-cut solutions, he offers examples of those doing it right – mainly Kirk Webster and his secluded, well-treated bees in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. The penultimate chapter of the book is devoted to the beauty of nature – the intelligence of its design, and how flawlessly the puzzle pieces of insects and plants fit together. By contrast, the book’s final chapter delivers blow after blow, warning how this fragile structure is already starting to fall apart. Jacobsen leaves us with the choice – to turn the other cheek and hope that our advancing technology will provide a solution, or to embrace the world “of fragrance and form…the one drenched in hope, possibility, and the ardent hum of new life being made.”

At Rivanna, we work hard to ensure that the business of running our business does as little as possible to disrupt the world’s natural processes and ecosystems. After reading Fruitless Fall, we’ll be working even harder. We hope you will, too.



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