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Book Review

A keeper and his bees stand against a mystery disease

By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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Few environmental or ecological crises are as alarming as the plight of the honeybee. The massive losses of the insects in the United States since 2006 may reduce our chances of getting stung, but they also reduce our chances of eating fruits and vegetables: Bees pollinate a third of the nation’s crops. No bees, no food.

This is what makes the work of scientists trying to unravel the mystery — which has come to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder — so important. And it’s what makes the work of beekeepers — people like John Miller — so heroic.

Miller, a commercial beekeeper from California, is the star of “The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America’’ by Hannah Nordhaus, a magazine writer. Miller spends most of each year traveling around the country with his truckload of hives, carting them to almond, apple, and cherry orchards, to pollinate crops as the bees gather nectar to make honey.

“The Beekeeper’s Lament’’ is at once science lesson, sociological study, and breezy read. Through Miller and several other characters along the way, Nordhaus leads us through the history of beekeeping, processes such as introducing a new queen to a hive, and the research into what is besetting the bees. She also helps us understand what draws men — and it is mostly men — like Miller to an arduous, often-frustrating career that will never make them rich.

As much as Miller’s tale, Nordhaus’s brisk, narrative writing style drives the story. A book about bees could easily descend into academe, but the author settles for nothing less than literature. Introducing us to life inside the hive, she writes: “The workers — the female bees who do all the cleaning, feeding, gathering, storing, and guarding — clamber over and under each other with purposeful direction; the paunchy drones — larger male bees whose sole task is to be available to impregnate a queen — wander around looking for handouts. Amid all this chaos, the queen sits like a rock star in a mosh pit, laying eggs, encircled by fawning workers who tend to her every need.’’

Unfortunately, those workers are not always there a year later. In the spring, when life resumes in the hive, many beekeepers have been finding that their bees have vanished. Scientists have been trying to get to the root of the problem; five years on, they have dismissed the theory that cellphone signals were to blame, but have not settled on any one cause. “Instead,’’ Nordhaus writes, “a combination of factors is probably responsible — some sort of interaction between pathogens and variables such as nutrition, weather, varroa mites, pesticides, and the modern insults of long-distance beekeeping.’’

The silver lining of Colony Collapse Disorder is that humans have become much more interested in, and educated about, bees. CCD has also created a boom in amateur beekeepers. (Full disclosure: My wife is one.) “CCD has been bad to bees, but it has been good for their image,’’ Nordhaus writes. “The honeybee has always had an advantage over other insects — it’s fuzzy; it’s striped; it looks cute on baby clothes; it makes honey. And now, in the wake of CCD, it has also acquired a patina of tragic charisma.’’

If “The Beekeeper’s Lament’’ has a flaw, it’s that it relies too much on Miller while not getting close enough to him to help us fully appreciate him. In another 10 or 20 pages, we could have learned, for instance, about the toll that his peripatetic job takes on his family back in California while he is summering with his bees in the dusty North Dakota town of Gackle.

Even so, “The Beekeeper’s Lament’’ is a page-turner, and the reader need not have any apiarian knowledge to become absorbed in the story. Nor does the book leave us in despair. Nordhaus reminds us that bee colonies have been collapsing almost as soon as they arrived on these shores with the capital-C Colonists around 1620. If anything, she leaves us on a hopeful note, one to which Bostonians can relate: Wait till next year.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at greenlee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.

THE BEEKEEPER’S LAMENT: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

By Hannah Nordhaus

Harper Perennial, 288 pp., paperback, $14.99