Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh
Two recent headlines in the San Diego Union-Tribune caught my attention. On April 13, 2013, the headline read, “Widespread Collapse of Bee Colonies Continues.” On May 3, a similar story was headlined, “U.S. Notes Causes for Dramatic Decrease of Honeybees.” As I write this review on May 6, NBC Nightly News is covering Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Most of us are not farming to feed our families, nor seed saving for our gardens, so we may think this is not of much concern, but we are all eaters. Honeybees pollinate almost 100 food crops in the United States—up to one-third of the American diet—including such things as almonds, avocados, broccoli, onions, blueberries, and other fruits, nuts, and seeds. If the rate of pollination decreases, crop yields decrease. Smaller crops mean higher prices for all of us.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not native to North America. Pilgrims brought the first hives to pollinate the European crops they also brought. More that 160 native species of bees and over a thousand native pollinators already lived here. The honeybees that multiplied and adapted to their new home displaced many.
I never gave honeybees much thought except to notice when there seemed to be a lot in my yard. I never realized what an industry they have become. They are called livestock, and there’s as much concern with keeping them healthy and active as there is with keeping herds of cattle and flocks of chickens at their profitable best. If anything, the industrialized world of honeybees is even more complex than that of other livestock.
Millions of beehives are trucked all over the United States to service the massive acreages of monocrops that are the center of American agriculture. And in the recent past, these hives have been in trouble. The NBC News reports that the largest beekeeping company in the United States normally expects a 5% loss over a typical winter. During the winter of 2012-13, they lost 42% of their bees to CCD.
A World Without Bees is a readable and fascinating look at the world of commercial beekeeping. It can get a little technical at times, but even those sections carried me along because they are well written. Benjamin and McCallum are British beekeepers. They don’t try to hide the fact that they have more than an academic interest in what is happening, and they have a certain amount of contempt for the people who are currently deciding where and how much research will be devoted to this problem. Published in 2009, the book is as fresh as today’s headlines.
This review was written in 2013. Now, in 2016, the problem of CCD is even worse. Beekeepers and scientists are still hopeful, but have made little progress in discovering a definitive cause. A World Without Bees is still timely. I recommend it to you.
Benjamin and McCallum have collaborated on two other books: Keeping Bees and Making Honey and Bees in the City: The Urban Beekeeper’s Handbook. McCallum is the lead author on the second one.