Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobson

In Fruitless Fall, Jacobson addresses the sudden disappearance of bees over the past few years which has come to be known as CCD--colony collapse disorder. A mystery to scientists and beekeepers everywhere, CCD may not be a disorder (in the sense of something being wrong with the bees) as much as it is an indication of environmental degradation and the destructive impact that humans have had on ecosystems. Globalization has also undoubtedly had a hand in CCD, with bees being carted across the country and imported from across the globe, allowing pathogens to enter into bee populations without any immunity. This of course combines with issues of pesticides and antibiotics which--though they may provide a quick fix--ultimately weaken the bees and prevent them from building up a natural resilience that could be passed to future generations.

Jacobson manages to cover an immense amount of information in this relatively small book, ranging from the inner workings of hive life to the global impact of honey bees to the healing power of honey, and beyond honey bees to industrial agriculture and factory farming, all of which have to do with CCD, as much as we would probably like to hope that it's an isolated problem with a simple solution.

Unfortunately for bees and pollinating insects everywhere, humans have their own plans when it comes to making food, and nature's way usually isn't fast enough or hyperproductive enough for our tastes. Almond growers must saturate their carefully planned and planted fields with bees to ensure pollination of a maximum number of flowers. Obviously, this isn't quite what would occur in nature:

If you're wondering how almond trees ever got by before mankind figured this out, remember that, in their homeland, wild almonds didn't evolve to grow in great stands of clones. There was plenty of genetic diversity in the forest. They also didn't need to produce banner crops of almonds every year; a few new seedlings was enough. Only in the weirdness of hyperproductive clonal forests do you need weird pollination strategies.

We've ignored the natural tendencies of the bees (and the very plants that we grow and harvest) and have attempted to change their nature to fit our needs. Unfortunately, this sort of stress can only lead to collapse.

Although Jacobson attempts to get to the bottom of CCD throughout the book, he concludes in the end that CCD is not a single problem with a single solution. Jacobson insists that a more holistic approach must be considered if we value the environment and our most treasured sources of food:

...To me, trying so hard to find a single cause of CCD misses the point. CCD, like varroa, is a symptom of a larger disease--a disease of fossil fuels and chemical shortcuts, of billion-bee slums and the speed of the modern world. An imbalance in the system. Maybe IAPV or imidacloprid or fluvalinate is the latest manifestation of the disease, but until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse. 'You keep digging to the bottom,' said Webster, 'that's what you'll always find. It's not a problem with the bees; it's a degradation of the whole environment.'

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