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The Plight of the Honey Bee – Part 2: Interview with Rowan Jacobsen

December 9, 2009

Fruitless Fall examines colony collapse disorder and the consequences for agriculture.

As mentioned in the first part of this series, our bees are in trouble. Deep trouble. And by extension, so are we.

To find out more about colony collapse disorder, we sat down with Rowan Jacobsen, the James Beard Award-winning author of A Geography of Oysters. He has written for the New York Times, Newsweek, Harper’s, Saveur, The Art of Eating, and many other publications.  Most notably, he is the author of Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: You’re a writer who looks at the connections between food and the environment, but how did you decide to write about bees and CCD? How did you first learn about the issue?

I’d been fascinated by honey and mead (honey wine) for years, ever since I brewed an ill-fated mead for my wedding a decade earlier. There are powerful forces in honey! And I was fascinated by the fact that it’s basically condensed flower essence. That got me thinking about the role bees play in ecosystems, and then I’d actually tried to order my own beehives, but they died before I could pick them up. It was an early sign of CCD, and it got my attention.

Q: You outlined in the book the importance bees play in agriculture but also some of the more unusual uses of bees – everything from the use of bees in finding landmines to identifying the source of a polluter in the Puget Sound. What surprised you the most about bees as you did your research?

How similar to us they are. I tend to think of insects as being completely alien to us, but bees really have all the same interests that we do. They like flowers and sugar and protein, they need a balanced diet with lots of probiotics, they are excellent communicators but they can get confused, they look for good jobs after they mature, and they like keeping their hives warm in winter. Of course, bees’ penises explode after they have sex, so there are certainly some differences.

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of "Fruitless Fall" and more recently "The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World."

Q: You explored every plausible cause of CCD (cell phones, suburbanization of rural areas, moncrops, mites, a form of bee AIDS, plus many more)  and as you pointed out in the end the scientific research continues to support a confirmation that there isn’t a single source of CCD – but rather a perfect storm of an entire systemic breakdown.  What are your thoughts on the biggest contributors to causing CCD?

Industrial agriculture. If we left bees to their own devices and didn’t overwork them, breed them in unnatural ways, and poison them with chemicals, they’d be fine. True, viruses are probably the main CCD trigger, but they can only do their damage because of the broader situation.

Q: In the book you bring up the term of “resilience” as a way to think of sustainable agriculture. It’s an idea where you may give up shorter-term gains for stronger, healthier farming that achieves better yields and returns in crops over time. It’s very much analogous to corporate social responsibility and corporate sustainability – that companies can achieve longer-term stability by managing their business processes for a longer timeframe.  With the increasing popularity of organic farming, buying local, etc., do you think the agri-industrial complex, if you will, is going to be forced to change?  And you quoted Kirk Webster as saying that the beekeeping has the honor of the first part of the system to fall apart. Because of this, will change derive from the “big guys” (ConAgra, ADM, etc.) seeing the light or from smaller decisions at a more local level?

There’s no way the big guys are gonna see the light because there is so little profit motive in the small system. It will have to be the collapse of one paradigm and the growth from within of a new one. However, I’m not sure how many of us can be fed in the transition. It would be foolish to pine away for the collapse of industrial agriculture. We have to hope for a soft landing, however unlikely.

Q: One of the more frightening revelations in the book was the danger of buying Chinese honey and the great lengths Chinese producers go to hide the origins of their product.  To be clear, you didn’t present it as a “Buy American” sentimentality, but merely pointed out that honey from China has been routinely found to contain molecules that would be illegal for an American producer to allow. What is something that the average person can do that could help support the honey bee industry? Obviously we can buy local, but are there other choice consumers can make that would have an impact?

Buying organic in general is excellent for bees, who are pollinating all those crops. Most organic fruit and veggies was food for bees before it was food for you. Also, landscaping with native plants, which generally provide good bee forage, and avoiding the use of pesticides in your yard are excellent steps.

Q: From a philosophical perspective, what do you think is the proper role of government in stewarding this industry? Of handling CCD?

I think government is at its best funding research. In the long run, that pays off much better than subsidies or byzantine rules. This is starting to happen, and I think we’ll see some good bee developments out of the universities in coming years.

Q: Similarly from a philosophical perspective, what do you think is the proper role of businesses in doing the same?

I think most businesses will run themselves right into oblivion if given the chance. The modern world forces them to make decisions based on the short-term, then suddenly some “black swan” comes along and wipes them out. If businesses make decisions for the long—very long—haul, everything will be fine. Unfortunately, this usually makes them less competitive today.

Q: You provided a 2009 update in your book that provided a slightly rosier trend about the future of the beekeeping. Namely that beekeepers have learned about healthier management and that CCD could actually have Darwinian positive effects in making the strongest bees survive. What’s your gut, do you think we’re in the clear?

No way. I think our system of food production is incredibly shaky. California is toast. Drought is the big driver. (And it’s not that droughts are getting worse; it’s that there are so many more demands on the existing water.) Honeybees will survive, in diminished numbers, but I doubt beekeeping can be profitable. I expect that in twenty years most of our food will come from Mexico, Chile, and China—assuming we can pay for it. (The major exception to this will be the local food model, but we’re talking small numbers here.)

Q: Your work has been compared, by TIME magazine no less, to be the Silent Spring of our time. What does it feel like to be coupled with such a seminal work as Rachel Carson’s book?

Not so good at the moment, because Big Ag hasn’t changed. If, down the line, my book has actually changed some behaviors, then it’ll feel great.

Q: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

American Terroir—a guide to foods across North America that are what they are because of where they come from.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 7, 2010 8:38 am

    Interesting article, hopefully we dont have CCD problems this winter.

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