altFruitless Fall:  The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury, New York, 2008)

Fruitless Fall had been my "to read" list since mid-2009 and, thanks to generous family, on our bookshelves since Christmas.  I loved Jacobsen's Chocolate Unwrapped, so why it took so long to begin this book is beyond me.  Once begun, however, I couldn't stop, and finished it the same day.  There are a few compensations for being sick and not having the energy to tackle much of anything else.

Speaking of feeling sick ... Fruitless Fall is scarier than The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food, Inc., and Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal combined.  Or perhaps the effect is cumulative.

That's not to say the book isn't a delight to read, doing for honey and beekeeping what John McPhee's Oranges did for the citrus industry many long years ago.  (I wish someone would write an update, as McPhee's book ends when frozen concentrate was king.)  The overall theme is the recent precipitous and inexplicable decline of bees and beekeepers, with many side notes (some delightful, some frightening) along the way.

Did you know that bees make great minesweepers?  They can be trained in two days, can cover vastly more territory than dogs, are as accurate as humans, and don't get themselves blown up.  This may not be the most important reason for us to worry about their health and safety, but I find it incredibly cool.

Bees, and consequently beekeepers, have faced a daunting couple of decades, especially in Europe and the Americas.  Loss of habitat, savage mites, virulent viruses, the stress of industrial agriculture, widespread pesticide and antibiotic use, and the still unexplained Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), have dealt a near-fatal blow to bees and the crops that depend on them for pollination.

It's a terrifying story, but maybe too much to take in all at once, especially when food is still plentiful on the grocery store shelves.  Here's something more immediate (and familiar) to make you think twice before buying your kids Honey Nut Cheerios.

[I]f you asked [beekeepers] to list the biggest challenges they face, development wouldn't even make the top three.  CCD wouldn't necessarily be number one, either.  That honor would go to China and its deluge of honey—real and otherwise. ... Almost 70 percent of the honey consumed in the United States is imported, with China the top source. ... And Chinese honey producers sell cheap.

That's "cheap" as in about half what it costs to produce honey in the U.S.  Lest you think that this bad news for American beekeepers is good news for American shoppers,

A powerful drug used to treat anthrax and other severe infections, chloramphenicol is banned for agricultural use in the United States, Canada, and Europe to prevent bacteria from developing resistance to it.  It also can cause deadly aplastic anemia—bone marrow failure—in people. ...  Between August 2002 and February 2003, FDA agents seized massive amounts of chloramphenicol-contaminated Chinese honey from several importers....

A February 2003 raid is particularly distressing.  Back on August 19, 2002, the FDA had informed the packer that its honey might be contaminated with antibiotics.  But the packer continued to sell the honey, including 155,000 pounds to Sara Lee, which put that honey into five hundred thousand loaves of bread that were sold to consumers before Sara Lee finally stopped using the honey ten days later.  On September 18, 2002, the FDA informed the packer that its honey was indeed contaminated with antibiotics.  Why it then took the FDA five months to seize the honey, and how much was used in the meantime, is unclear.

A tariff, and a temporary ban on Chinese honey, allowed the price to rise some, but "honey laundering"—sending Chinese honey to the U.S. through other countries—was rampant.  Then, on the strength of a Chinese promise (will we never learn?) to stop using chloramphenicol, the ban on Chinese honey was lifted.  And a loophole was found to circumvent the tariff.

[T]he honey packers, the middlemen, resolved that they would never again be caught short.  Honey ... can stay good for decades.  So now we have walls of Chinese honey in Florida and warehouse after warehouse of clover honey in the Dakotas, ensuring that whatever happens on the world market, industrial honey in the United States will remain cheap.

You may not want to eat it, however. ... In January 2006, [a leading food safety lab] analyzed a random sample of Chinese honey, taken from a Florida honey packer, and found 48 parts per billion ciprofloxacin in it.  Yes, Cipro, the last-defense, über-antibiotic used to treat the anthrax attacks in 2001.  [The top German food safety lab] has found Cipro in numerous batches of Chinese honey.  [That honey, rejected by the EU, eventually came to the U.S.] Apparently Chinese beekeepers are tossing it into their hives to deal with the raging bacterial chaos simmering in a country with rampant pollution, spotty sewage treatment, and few agricultural standards.

An estimated 70 percent of Chinese beekeepers use antibiotics.  One entrepreneur leased a nature preserve of acacia trees from the Chinese government and recruited forty-five beekeepers who agreed to make honey in the reserve without antibiotics and without metal storage containers, which can contaminate honey with iron and lead.  For his troubles, he was ambushed by fifteen other local beekeepers who didn't like the competition, beaten, and left with a concussion.

Does this next situation sound eerily familiar?  It should, because it was just such a situation with home mortgages that precipitated the recent financial crash-and-burn.

Of course, on an ingredients label for honey-mustard dressing or honey-baked ham, you have no way of knowing who made the honey.  Thanks to the international shell games, neither do the food manufacturers.

It gets worse.

[The product] may not even be honey.  Honey is expensive to produce, while corn syrup is cheaper than dirt.  Honey producers in the 1900s got rich cutting honey with corn syrup ... but methods for detecting it soon developed.  Then the adulterators got better. ... [In 1998 American honey buyers received an offer from] a company in India to supply "honey analog" by the ton.  This analog, made from corn or rice syrup, was "enzymatically processed" to resemble honey, physically and chemically.  The company assured buyers that the syrup would pass any test for natural honey....

Sometimes the fraud is chemical, as when rice syrup is doctored to resemble honey, and sometimes it's ontological.  For instance, what is honey?  If you answered something like "a syrup made entirely out of nectar by bees," then consider yourself hopelessly out of date.  Let me introduce you to "Packer's Blend," the latest offering from China.  It appeared on the market in 2006, shortly after the [tariff] loophole was closed by Congress.  Chinese honey may be subject to tariffs, but if a product is less than 50 percent honey, it isn't covered by the law.  This "funny honey," as beekeepers call it, is between 40 and 49 percent honey.  The rest is syrup:  corn syrup, but also rice syrup, lactose syrup—whatever's on hand and cheap.  The importers who bring in these blends may sell them to manufacturers as blends or as pure honey, adding some nice American or Canadian clover honey to give the blend a semblance of the real thing and get it past the manufacturers.

Packer's Blend sells for forty cents a pound and may be in more foods than any of us realize.  You won't see "Packer's Blend" on an ingredients label.  You may see "rice syrup" and "honey," listed separately, or you may just see "honey."  Do food manufacturers understand what they're getting when they buy Packer's Blend?  Are they being told it's honey?  Do they know they're using Chinese honey that may be contaminated?

We can't say for sure.  But what we can say is that American beekeepers can't compete.

The price for industrial-grade honey remains depressed, and one reason ... is that honey laundering is out of control.  Millions of pounds of illegal Chinese honey continue to enter the United States.  The honey is first shipped to the Philippines, Thailand, Russia, India, Australia, and other countries, where papers are forged falsifying the country of origin.  Then the honey is shipped to the United States.  Some of the smugglers know it is contaminated with outlawed antibiotics.  "There is definitely this problem," one Chinese shipper wrote to his U.S. importers.  "I'm worried whether the FDA or USDA may get involved.  Our future shipments will definitely have this fluoroquinolones, and it may take a couple of years to improve."  The honey was sold to major U.S. food companies.  So far, the USDA has made a few arrests, but not enough to staunch the flow of illegal honey.

Nor is our own government squeaky-clean:

[Florida's state apiarist decided]   to quarantine any Australian colonies coming into Florida until he got a cycle of brood out of them, just to be safe.  He was told that if he did that he'd be sued by the government for disrupting international trade.  Somebody really wanted those bees here.

I can't end on such a depressing note.  Much as Polyface Farms is the bright jewel of hope in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Kirk Webster's apiary in the Champlain Valley of Vermont is the sun and air of this otherwise dark story.  As Joel Salatin's Christian faith infuses his farming practices, so Webster's Buddhism led him to conform his practices to nature, rather than the other way around.

[Webster writing] "In my own search for a healthy beekeeping future, I have found the World of Nature herself, the old beekeeping books and journals, and the original accounts of the pioneers of modern organic farming to be far more helpful and inspiring than most of what has been published, talked about and done by the beekeeping community during the last 8 or 10 years.  Here were people who worked hard to solve their own problems in a creative way, often with very few resources.  They looked deeply into the world of Nature searching for examples of balance and stability, and always gave their crops and livestock the last word."

[Sir Albert Howard, father of the modern organic movement, believed] successful farming and food production—healthy plants, animals, and people—required balance.  Any agricultural enterprise must achieve a state of equilibrium that mimics nature if it is to survive and prosper. ... When an imbalance took hold, Howard believed, nature let you know.  The heralds of this imbalance were often pests and disease, which could get a foothold only if something was out of whack in the system.  In this way, pests and disease are not the enemies of the farmer; they are actually allies, helping to illuminate weaknesses in the system before irrevocable damage—exhausted soil, genetically weak crops or animals—is introduced.

In 1998 [Webster] decided to stop fighting the mites and instead see what he could learn from them.  By his own admission, he might not have done it if an easier solution had presented itself. ... "I decided this whole thing was a freight train heading for a wreck, and that I was going to go through the wreck early.  And hopefully recover early."

Recover he did.  The years of letting nature take its course and in the process breeding more robust bees were years of poverty, and even now, with a healthy, prospering, sustainable apiary of mite-resistant bees, he's not going to get rich.  Fortunately, he doesn't want to.

For decades ... honey bees have been selected for traits that had little to do with resilience.  Maximum honey production tops the charts, with maximum bee production closely linked to that.  Gentleness is essential.  Qualities that contribute to self-reliance—resistance to pests and disease, overwintering ability, frugality—are less valued because it's more efficient to rely on petrochemicals to solve such problems.  Who needs bees that can overwinter when it's cheap to truck them down to Florida for the cold months?  Who needs to worry about self-reliant bees when it's more cost-effective to buy new [bees] from Southern breeders or Australia in the early spring?  Why find forage for bees when high-fructose corn syrup is cheap and plentiful?  Why spend years breeding mite- and disease-resistant bees when the chemical conglomerates have all these miticides, fungicides, and antibiotics available right now?

You can manipulate a natural system into doing things it wasn't designed for, but you're always running the risk of collapse.

[Webster again] "Beekeeping now has the dubious honor of becoming the first part of our system of industrial agriculture to actually fall apart.  Let's stop pretending that something else is going on.  We no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops.  Each time the bees go through a downturn, we respond by making things more stressful for them, rather than less—we move them around more often, expose them to still more toxic substances, or fill the equipment up again with more untested and poorly adapted stock.  We blame the weather, the mites, the markets, new diseases, consumers, the Chinese, the Germans, the (fill in your favorite scapegoat), other beekeepers, the packers, the scientific community, the price of gas, global warming—anything rather than face up to what's happening.  We are losing the ability to take care of living things.  Why?"

Did I say that the decline of bees was the overall theme of Fruitless Fall?  Perhaps it is.  But there's a supertext also:  We need to stop working against our environment and start working with it; to observe carefully and take heed to the ways of the natural world, rather than assuming we always know best and can run roughshod over it with impunity; and to recognize that Creation is not a commodity, but a community.  Joel Salatin would call this "honoring the bee-ness of the bee."


Note:  I never thought I'd have to worry about a "grandchild warning" on a book obviously aimed at adults, but since we now have a grandson who is both six years old and fully capable of picking up and enjoying this book, I have to mention that there are two or three places where he'd encounter language none of us would want him to repeat.

Note 2:  It's time for another plug for the people (and bees) who converted me to a honey-lover:  Winter Park Honey "We have hives located throughout Orlando, Winter Garden, Central Florida and Winter Park, Colorado. Our bees are treated like the royalty they are.   We respect the bees and they reward us with great honey!   We never use pesticides in, around of anywhere near our hives.   We don't treat our bees with antibiotics. Our bees always eat their own honey so they stay healthy and strong."  Organic, raw, unfiltered, and incredibly delicious!

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 6:38 am | Edit
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I'm glad you got a chance to read it. I ended up buying another copy for myself to read again at some point. S

Posted by dstb on Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 7:59 pm

I agree that it was far more disturbing than Omnivore and Food Inc. The Chinese honey is truly frightening. There was a section where he talks about the various modern systems being broken - the farms, the bees. It extends to the stock market, which was supposed to be a transparent way for people to invest in companies they believed in but has become the playground of the insiders. I think the political system seems broken as well - it would be hard to imagine the current members of congress being able to sit down together and draft the constitution.

Posted by dstb on Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I'm tempting to think it's not my problem since usually you say Europe is doing better. I wonder if that's really true, but if it is, it makes me feel better for paying much higher prices for my food that I would in the US.

Posted by Janet on Friday, October 01, 2010 at 2:14 am

wow. must read this book. thanks for passing along the info....

Posted by ~liz on Friday, October 01, 2010 at 7:33 am

Liz, it is truly a must-read. For one thing, there's a lot more to it than what I quoted; the sections on the history of beekeeping and how the hive works are worth the the cost of the book (i.e. purchase price plus reading time) in themselves. You will also know that by keeping bees yourself you become part of the solution. Those of us less adventuresome can grow flowers—the author includes a long list of particularly beneficial ones.

Janet, from what I understand, Europe is better in this also; at least the EU has higher honey standards. But I'd still be vigilant, it's not always the case. It's spotty; I think we do better at showing where unprocessed foods come from, and I know our vaccine standards are higher, at least in some ways—I remember a fuss last year about "effectiveness enhancers" used in Europe but not approved here.

DSTB, I agree about systems being broken, and a lot of it has to do with complication and lack of transparency, whether agricultural, financial, or political. But the main reasons I agree with your comment about the current members of Congress are (1) their larger number, and the size and complexity of their constituents, and (2) I think, overall, they're not as intelligent and well-educated a group, at least when it comes to rhetoric, discourse, and logic. But as I understand it, our Founding Fathers were an ornery lot, too. Maybe more ethical, although that's not clear. Good ol' Ben Franklin, who deserves a whole lot of credit for getting this country started, makes Bill Clinton look chaste.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, October 01, 2010 at 8:24 am

I have not watched it yet, but I noticed that the PBS show, Nature, has an episode called "Silence of the Bees". The complete episode is on their website for viewing. S

Posted by dstb on Monday, October 04, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Reading "Fruitless Fall" now (while watching Nova's wonderful program "Tales From the Hive". It is a very accessible book and terrifying as well. One comment though on your friends at Winterpark Honey. The problem is that despite what they do at their apiary, they can't control what a neighbor three miles does on their flowers or to their apple tree. Until everyone forgoes chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and antibiotics, we can't be completely sure what is in anyone's honey. (Unless you are lucky enough to be WAY the heck out in the country.)

Posted by Donna Frano on Friday, April 08, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Too true. Not that antibiotics and some chemicals don't have their proper places—but the GM crops really scare me. Not in principle, but because they spread easily to neighboring farms, and most of all because farmers who don't even want them are being sued if "volunteers" are found in their fields.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 6:40 am