BOOK REVIEW / Sting in the bees' tale: Following the bloom - Douglas Whynott: Airlift Book Co, pounds 8.95

Share
Related Topics
IN MARCH, in the woods of Washington County, Maine, the bears emerge from hibernation. Then, in mid-May, 10,000 beehives arrive - hired pollinators brought in on trucks to the blueberry barrens, some from as far south as the orange groves of Florida - and the bears have a honey orgy.

So traps are set, and bears are shot - and not everyone's too happy with that. 'I think they ought to shoot the beekeepers,' says one local, 'and leave the bears alone.'

In this entrancing portrait of America's honey cowboys, however, bears and hostile locals rank pretty low among the commercial beekeeper's worries. One careless crop sprayer can do more damage altogether, as a scene in North Dakota makes gruesomely clear - piles of poisoned corpses by a string of ruined hives.

Then there is the odd phenomenon of 'queenlessness'. A moved hive becomes stressed, and stressed hives sometimes kill their queens, 'as if blaming them for the repeated disruptions'. The disruptions in question involve transit for thousands of miles, loaded on dodgy rigs ducking through the night on dirt county roads to avoid inspection stations. Drivers wrestle through, in states of terminal fatigue compounded by venom headaches, sweetening policemen and farmers along the way with cases of honey.

They stay in grubby motels laconically described as '900 flies and a TV full of snow'. They break their ribs, and they break the law; rigs become bogged in sand, or spill their loads on freeway intersections. A television set falls on a driver's head. Gaskets blow, radiators puncture, tyres erupt under excessive weights of honey; restaurant car parks fill with angry bees. One driver, threatened with arrest, walks into the bee cloud. 'I figured they weren't going to go in after me.'

But these troubles pale into insignificance beside the risk of infestation with the tracheal mite, the varroa, or political mites such as Dan Quayle. When Whynott visits Washington with a chain-smoking Oklahoman honey lobbyist, the result is a model thumbnail sketch of the workings of DC, through the offices of senators, congressmen, aides and consultants.

Mr Quayle had given a speech trying to block the honey support programme. 'We are,' he warned, 'probably going to hear some arguments about bees being important to our national security . . . buzz, buzz, buzz; bees, bees, bees. They are buzzing about everywhere . . . and by golly, if you don't vote for them, watch out for those bees.'

In fact, 80 per cent of the pollination of an enormous range of US food products - from almonds in California to apples in Connecticut, from alfalfa in Wyoming to cucumber in Virginia - is performed by bees. These crops, in total, are worth dollars 20bn.

So Mr Quayle could not stop the honey train - but, it seems, the Africanised, or 'killer', bee might. In an otherwise gentle book, the section dealing with the spread of this threat from Brazil, where the feral hybrid first appeared, takes on a gripping and apocalyptic tone.

Twenty-six swarms were accidentally released from an experimental station in 1957. Today, they rule South America. They crossed the Panama Canal in 1980, and arrived in Texas two years ago. A project for a control barrier at the border was costed at dollars 170m; it failed to obtain funding. But potential losses, in terms of reduced crop productivity as the US beekeeping industry collapses, are immeasurably greater.

Whynott saves this punch for last. The rest of his book alternates between following the nectar harvest down the long roads of the United States and describing along the way, with elegant simplicity, the miraculous workings of bee society.

As such, this is one of those rare books that illuminates an arcane and awkward subject, without ever forgetting to entertain in the process. When Whynott speaks in North Dakota with Joe and Dawn Romance, it's romance - bee herdsmen fixed in their souls on honey flows, honey gambles, and honey mathematics.

Migratory commercial beekeepers came into their own in the Sixties and Seventies, thanks to forklift trucks and interstate highways. But in the way of things American, the boom is now busting. These people have been stung almost to death, yet as one puts it, 'nobody's cutting a fat hog in the ass this year'.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Analyst - London - £38,000

£30000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Data Analyst - Lon...

Norwegian Speaking Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive OTE: SThree: Progressive in Manchester...

IT Support Analyst - London - £22,000

£20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chel...

Learning Support Assistants-Nantwich area

£8 - £9 per hour: Randstad Education Chester: We are currently recruiting for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prime Minister’s Questions: Yah Miliband versus Boo Cameron

John Rentoul
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella  

Zoella is a great role model - she changed my life

Vicky Chandler
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London