The amazing lives of bees

This morning my review of The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus runs in the Christian Science Monitor. It’s a very good book. Nordhaus spent a couple years with a migratory beekeeper named John Miller as he trucked his half-a-billion bees around the country and rented them out for weeks at a time to pollinate almond orchards, orange groves, and clover fields, etc. (As a result of monocultural crop planting local bee populations are rarely big enough to keep pace with agribusiness pollination needs.)

The best part of the book for me was learning more about bees. My prior knowledge was so limited that I hadn’t even put it together that “Clover Honey” means honey that was produced by bees who got their succor pollinating fields of clover. There are, as it turns out, nearly as many varietals of honey as there are types of flowers. Among them one of the most noxious and inedible is said to be honey produced from onion blossoms.

As I was reading The Beekeeper’s Lament I shared bee trivia with just about everyone I ran into. A couple of my favorite bee-related factoids made it into the review (including a quick recap of the astonishing one-and-only flight the queen bee makes outside the hive in her life). Here are a few that did not:

  • It takes 80,000 bees working all summer and visiting 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of honey
  • The average honeybee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey over the course of his six-week lifetime
  • Migratory bees pollinate $15 billion of crops every year, and make possible 1 in every 3 bites of food from each summer’s harvest. Given the importance of migratory beekeeping to food production, I was particularly surprised that pollinators-for-hire only became a big business in the late-1990s.
  • In 2002 the FDA banned all honey imports from China after Chinese beekeepers used a nasty pesticide to combat an outbreak of a bacterial disease called foulbrood. The ban didn’t work, though. The Chinese started routing all their honey through third-party countries like Vietnam and Australia. Honey from China is still illegal to import into the US, but Nordhaus writes, “Suppliers suspect that 50 percent or more of all imported honey has been transhipped from China through another country.”
  • Every January two-thirds of the nation’s bees are trucked to the Central Valley in California to pollinate almond trees.
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