Rating: ★★★★★ 

Fruitless Fall:  The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen.  Bloomsbury (2008), 279 pages.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s Silent Snow, Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall informs us of the plight of honey bees and the disaster that is in store for us if we continue to abuse them.  Before reading this book my understanding of honeybees was limited pretty much to that of a third grader—we need them to pollinate things.  I had no idea that honey bees are responsible for virtually all of our fruit and nuts and most of our vegetables and that without them, our food would be limited to those that are wind pollinated (grains mostly.)  I was also horrified to learn that beekeepers are not just gathering honey, but are treating bees with pesticides and antibiotics, trucking them back and forth across the country, feeding them high fructose corn syrup, forcing malnourished and sickly bees to work, and are in general running operations that are as destructive and morally bankrupt as a beef feedlot.

Jacobsen explains bee behavior, the history of colony collapse disorder, and the heroic efforts of hobbyists and natural beekeepers to cultivate healthy strains of honey bees.  He also conveys a love for his subject that is contagious.  After reading Fruitless Fall I find myself noticing bees, and caring about them, in a completely new way.  They have been transformed in my mind from anonymous insects to little beings whose health and happiness matters to me for their own sake, not just for the future of agriculture.

This is an incredibly important book that (along with  The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The End of the Line)  needs to be read by everyone who eats.

Bumble bees are rugged frontier types, amazingly self-reliant and personally formidable, yet uncooperative.  As soon as their colony reaches a certain size, workers will start eating the queen’s new eggs unless she guards them.  Honey bees are individually unimpressive but loyal and regimented.  Conflict is exceedingly rare.  Bumble bees are Gaulish villagers; honey bees are the Roman legions.

While bumble bees and some solitary bee species can fly at temperatures below freezing, honey bees don’t like to fly when it’s below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Nor will they fly in rain.  They start relatively late in the morning (compared with other bees) and stop early in the evening.  A friend of mine who is an apple specialist refers to them as union workers—if several conditions aren’t met, they’ll shut it down for the day.

Reviewed by Cindy Blackett