You may derive your literary frights from the likes of Stephen King, a creepy gothic horror novel, or any book in the new wave of paranormal wolfman/vampire horror romance. Or, if you're like us, you take perverse delight in scaring yourself with a book about any of the litany of modern terrors that threaten to destroy us all, be it flu pandemic, tainted food, terrorism, political corruption, environmental breakdown, or the Mayan-prophesied 2012 apocalypse that will kill us in so many different ways we won't even worry you to mention them.Our friend Jeff Cope, a book rep for Macmillan, understands our penchant for doomsday lit, and thus sent us a copy of Rowan Jacobsen's Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, just out in paperback. In his accompanying note, Jeff said that after reading this, he felt like putting a hive in the backyard, and that he may never buy industrial honey again.
If you're still reading this, you've probably heard about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a term which describes the mysterious death and disappearance of honey bees. CCD has ravaged colonies worldwide over the past three years and is a major concern in that a third of the food we eat is derived from plants that rely on bee pollination. Early explanations for the disorder, which began turning up in 2006, ranged from the common (pesticides) to the unlikely (cell phone disturbance) to the absurd (alien abduction), and the fact that scientists have been so perplexed by the issue only creates more unease.
Before reading Fruitless Fall, CCD was no more than a nagging worry, swarming alongside a thousand other futile fears in the back of our mind. If you're curious and harbor similar fears, Jacobsen's book will enlighten and may allay (or exacerbate) fears, depending on your faith in mankind's ability to curb this epidemic. The author does an excellent job covering the issue — explaining how hives operate ("the impression is not of thousands of individuals but of one fluid intelligence"), what occurred in the wake of hive collapse (food prices rose 37 percent), how scientists documented the research, as well as the myriad and conflicting theories put forth by various interests.
After reading how commercial beekeeping and industrialized food production, with its impossible schedules and synergy of poisons, work hand-in-hand, you begin to understand that CCD is most likely not some mystery disease but further evidence of a system out of balance. "Trucked to new (pollination) sites every few weeks, jacked up on high-fructose corn syrup, dosed with pesticides and antibiotics, invaded by parasites, and exposed to exotic pathogens, (bee colonies) are worn thinner and thinner," Jacobsen writes. Most frightening is the implication that bees may be the canary in the coal mine — a harbinger for other, more evolved species.
As if CCD weren't bad enough, there's the usual bad news from the commercial front. American honey is being undercut by cheaper Chinese imports, which seem to be either laden with illegal antibiotics or comprised of over half filler to dodge U.S. tariffs. We're not only hurting our domestic market, we're substituting one of the healthiest substances on earth with potentially harmful imitations. So remember that when you're eating your next cut-rate honey baked ham or honey-coated nuts, cereals and pre-packaged delights. (We also threw out our frozen Chinese-raised fish after reading this.)
Like Michael Pollan, Jacobsen is a journalist with philosophical interests, and he finds some of his most fascinating material — and greatest hope — from beekeepers and scientists on the fringes, who take a holistic approach to the problem. And alongside the vast, thought-provoking themes with repercussions for all society, there is the usual trove of great nerdy trivia on bees and pollination in general. (We'll never eat a fig again without wondering if there is a host of huge-penised baby wasps clustered inside.) Despite all the disastrous examples we've shown, Jacobsen has worked hard to make this a very upbeat and readable book, complete with goofy analogies and a conversational tone.
The lesson here, once again, seems to be that when we rush to douse our fields and forests with chemicals, whether to help it along or inhibit it, all in the interest of quicker and bigger pay-offs, we so often undermine the delicate natural balance with its ingenious system of growth, cooperation and protection. Until our food producers embrace sustainability over the market (which always seems to fail them in the end anyway), we are faced with the potential for a looming agricultural crisis. "There are good reasons why we shouldn't measure farms with the same yardstick we use for other businesses," Jacobsen writes, "but how do we do that in a culture where the economy has become the default measure of value?"
And so with this book, appropriately, we wind up our summer reading and look toward a bountiful fall.