Rowan Jacobsen's new book, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, is, among other things, a horror story for food lovers. It envisions a world without nearly a hundred of our most common -- and most beloved -- foods. And what's the cause of this horror? Something you've probably never spent a single moment considering: the end of honeybee life as we know it.
Honeybees, it turns out, are responsible for a good deal more than honey. Their work is essential to the production of all kinds of foods, including almonds, coffee and a number of fruits (cherries and blueberries, for instance). Even vegetable staples like lettuce, carrots and onions rely on the tireless work of bees. As Jacobsen points out, pollinated plants and other honeybee beneficiaries provide much of the basis of our health and prosperity.
But honeybees are not well. While their populations have been declining for decades, the last few years have seen them disappear in droves. This mass disappearance is attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the cause of which is still a mystery.
The results of CCD, however, are alarmingly clear: In 2006, nearly a third of America's honeybees vanished, followed by another third in 2007. And statistics outside the U.S. are similar. Wherever honeybees are prevalent, from Europe to South America, their numbers have waned. In Fruitless Fall, Jacobsen tries to solve the mystery behind this loss -- along the way providing a fascinating look at a creature most humans only deign to consider when it threatens to sting.
After telling us everything the average person could possibly want to know about honeybees in a wonderfully detailed chapter called “How the Honey Bee Conquered the World”, Jacobsen starts going over possible causes for the recent plight of the former world-conqueror.
He ultimately lands on not one answer, but many -- from pesticides, antibiotics and malnutrition, to beetles, bacteria and viruses. And the very multiplicity of answers is itself an answer. It’s the answer. Jacobsen's conclusion is that CCD is the outcome of myriad culprits attacking in unison. That is, modern conditions have engendered a whole slew of afflictions, which hit the honeybee all at once. And while it could deal with one or two of these afflictions, a dozen simultaneously is another matter -- a matter of crisis.
Viruses illustrate the point perfectly. The honeybee has dealt with viruses throughout its entire existence, and it has made due. When recent dying populations were tested, however, they revealed infection by not one, not two, but 14 viruses. This implies a seriously worn immune response -- the likely cause of which is chronic stress. And the common causes of chronic stress? Numerous stressors acting together.
So why all this honeybee stress all of a sudden? Why all these afflictions? Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it seems humans are basically to blame -- specifically, the habits of modern living. Honeybees, it turns out, respond poorly to some of the defining attributes of modernity: High fructose corn syrup and long distance travel, to name but a few (bees are fed corn syrup to keep them pollinating crops in places with little available nectar; and they are trucked cross-country for all kinds of pollinating needs).
Granted, some of what ails the honeybee aren’t exactly man-made problems -- viral and bacterial infections, for instance. But the rest of the list bears the distinct imprint of modern man: Urbanization, globalization and global warming.
We are left with the impression that our inability to find satisfaction in the simple, the natural and the local is at the root of the honeybee's plight; and that our relentless attempts to outsmart nature (for example, by engineering antibiotics, using pesticides or substituting corn syrup for nectar) only exacerbate the problem.
Whether we can undo the damage we’ve done is the question we’re left with at the end of Fruitless Fall. What else are we left with? While we might not be entirely convinced that the collapse of the honeybee entails an actual “agricultural crisis”, as the book's particularly dire subtitle would have us believe, we are sure that Colony Collapse Disorder is a serious problem. That, moreover, it is distinctly our problem. Beyond all this, we’re made to understand how easily -- by simply applying to nature the same improvements we apply to ourselves -- we can alter whole aspects of nature, and to a degree bordering on destruction.
With this in mind, it's easy to recall something Jacobsen says in his early, exhaustive chapter on the nature of the honeybee: “You don't have to kill bees to destroy a colony. Anything that affects bee's memory, learning, senses, appetite, digestion, instincts or life span can be enough to throw the feedback loops off course. Skew enough of them, and the beautiful mathematics of the hive break down.”
We can't help but wonder how many “improving” changes we can make to the natural life of humans before our own species suffer something akin to Colony Collapse Disorder.
Without disclaiming globalization or antibiotics or even high fructose corn syrup, we should at least be reminded that human life (on both the individual and community level) is, like everything else, sustained by a balance given to us by nature. And changes to that balance, though they might be improvements in some respects, are nonetheless changes to that balance.
While we may not notice negative effects in individual changes, the sum total may cause a state of chronic stress for humans, just as it did for the honeybee. And the beautiful mathematics of the human hive, as it were, will likely not prove conspicuously immune.