Book Review | The Beekeeper’s Lament

The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus

The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Million Honey Bees Help Feed America by Hannah Nordhaus 

Published by Harper Perennial, this nonfiction work is altogether fascinating and thought-provoking. Part artform, part science, beekeeping is certainly one of the most difficult industries. To choose such an unsteady livelihood in order to produce honey and pollinate a vast majority of the foods Americans eat is certainly a career that deserves respect. 

And yet, most beekeepers must find creative ways to sustain their businesses. People love honey. Bees? Not so much. At least, not when you consider the varied ways industrialized farming practices and ever-expanding suburban sprawl have made the art of beekeeping more and more arduous each year.

In this work, Nordhaus follows the lives of several weathered beekeepers attempting to sustain their businesses. Despite their experience — in many cases the beekeeping business is handed down within a family for generations — these men and women are now facing issues their fathers and grandfathers never had to deal with.

Here are some fascinating things I did not know about beekeeping, bees and honey that I gleaned while reading this book:

  • A honey bee queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs (male and female) per day at her productive peak.

  • One honey bee will produce, on average, one-twelfth of a teaspoon of clover honey – which is by far one of the most sought-after due to it’s fragrance and pleasing taste.

  • China was recently caught exporting honey with toxic pesticides and antibiotics. A 2002 ban was put in place to keep Chinese product from reaching American consumers, but since the ban, other countries, such as Australia, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Russia, Indonesia and Taiwan have increased their exportation of honey. All of these countries are believed to be shipping Chinese product to America and Canada. It is generally assumed that roughly 50% of the imported honey in America comes from Chinese apiaries.
  • Honey, like wine, gets better with age.
  • A trick for testing the purity of honey (as opposed to honey that has been adulterated with water or high-fructose corn syrup:Good honey flows from the knife in a straight stream, forming a bead as it lands on a surface. Should the cascade break into separate drops, a second stream of honey will temporarily sit on top of the older bead, forming a layer. If the honey has too much water, it will break into droplets as it falls, pooling as it hits bottom without taking form. Good honey never separates in the jar.
  • California almond farmers grow roughly 80% of the almonds sold world-wide and because almond trees do not self-pollinate, these farmers rely on beekeepers to transport their hives to almond farms in order to raise their crop.
  • Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), rampant pesticide use, changes in weather, suburban sprawl, varroa mites and other parasites have recently led to a very staggering realization — something is happening to honey bees not only nationwide, but worldwide. Beekeepers and scientists alike are trying to get to the bottom of this matter through various scientific methods such as genetic testing, honey pollen sampling (Melissopalynology) and geographical mapping of pesticide use and parasite outbreaks.
  • There are several types of honey bees within North America. Recently the European honey bee, a mild-tempered bee has been mating (within labs and in the wild) with the African honey bee, which is an ill-tempered insect, much more likely to sting humans. However, the African and Asian honey bees have, in comparison with the European bee, fared better through CCD outbreaks. 

In addition, Nordhaus has made an attempt to weave within the statistical analysis and scientific jargon moments of honestly written poems, prose and fleeting thoughts, crafted not only by herself, but by one of the beekeepers with whom she studies. Here is a passage by Nordhaus:

But on that luminous and bittersweet August weekend, it was, perhaps, hard to let go just yet. We cleave to the way things are, not only to hold back a chaotic future, and not only because that is what we know. Gackle is a testament to the value of sheer persistence. There is value in returning to the one who loves you, in keeping the family farm going, in living where you grew up, in keeping bees when no amount of common sense and economic self-preservation can justify it. The colony may be collapsing in North Dakota, but not everyone is flying off. There is value, yes, and there is dogged romance in persistence.

Regardless of your feelings on the sometimes offensive insect (for anyone who has been stung, you’ll know what I mean), one thing is certain, you will never eat honey the same way again. In reading this book, you will gain knowledge of all that goes into producing those amber-colored plastic bears — and a greater respect for those stinging insects.


Sarah Aylward received a copy of this book from the publisher, Harper Perennial.


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