The Unbearable Lightness of Bee-ing.



That was a pun. This is a post about bees.

So I’ve got this fascination with bees. Not up-close, because I’m afraid they’ll sting me and I’ll die. I got stung fairly regularly as a wee one (as one would expect growing up in the country in Minnesota) but also more than you’d think as both a teenager and young adult (no real satisfactory explanation for this). Three I remember vividly. Stepped on a nest while mowing the lawn, which wouldn’t have been that big a deal but I’d accidentally just run it over and was mowing barefoot at the time. They were pissed, and I rightly got hit about half a dozen times. Then once when I was older in the face, which was as initially terrifying as you’d expect but faded pretty quickly, and then finally once in the arm which (because of the latter) I figured would be no big deal until it swelled up so much I couldn’t bend my wrist for most of a day. So I keep my distance these days, and admire them from afar.

Bees are infinitely interesting. They’ve been around for millions of years, and navigated potentially cladogenetic environmental changes time and again by positively selecting advantageous traits very rapidly. Darwin was fascinated by them. They confounded human ingenuity for hundreds of years. I wrote about how they can help us be smarter in designing elections a while back. I guess, to me, they represent some ultimate form of crowdsourcing the decision-making apparatus, and serve in so many cases of the power of collective intelligence.

beekeeper's lament

So recently, I picked up Hannah Nordhaus’ The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed the World. To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting that much from it. Some overly dramatic language on how global warming/pesticide use/habitat loss has and continues to decimate bee populations and that’s going to lead to the end of life as we know it. Recent years have seen staggering bee losses in the United States, as any non-sequestered individual knows, and I assumed that would be the tent pole of the book. As a reader, such treatments bore me to tears. As an animal lover, I wasn’t really looking forward to a couple hundred pages about here’s another way I need to be ashamed of my species. As an historian of science and (in some ways) strict Darwinian, I knew it would probably be overwrought. Nature, for good and ill, finds a way. Species adapt, or they don’t, and the world keeps on turning. If humanity accidentally nukes itself a thousand times over, one or a hundred or a thousand million years from now life will emerge and start again.

Thankfully, refreshingly, astonishingly, even, Nordhaus manages to eschew that caricatured narrative which so plagues other science and nature writing (even by people who should know better). Certainly at times The Beekeeper’s Lament is a paean to a simpler time. Alternately, too, it might strike some occasionally as a hand holding a megaphone prophesying a looming Armageddon. Here and there, heartbreakingly, it is unavoidably Sinclairean in its portrayal of the honey-producing industry and the life of the average bee in America. It is, in fact, more than most a many-faceted narrative of hardship, loss, hope, triumph, tranquility, anxiety, sacrifice, community, loneliness, and stubbornness. It is, in other words, a narrative of the American beekeeper.

If that kind of exploration interests you, and you have an appreciation for consistently clear writing marked by a strong authorial voice, you’ll love The Beekeeper’s Lament. Nordhaus demonstrates a talent for making her characters come to life, which is quite the feat given how boring we know most of our fellow humans to be. John Miller, a beekeeper from California who also spends time in the northern plains, is the simultaneously irascible, gregarious, obsessive, laissez-faire, and above all committed central thread of the narrative. This is a book that, as I’m sure Nordhaus would admit, is as much his as it is hers. And he is, if not always likable, certainly insightful and interesting.

It’s a book filled with the minutiae (and history) of beekeeping, bee physiology, bee habitats and ecosystems, and the honey marketplace. The two most compelling points of the narrative are at once simple and revealing of the past, current, and future prospects for bees and all of the constituent ways in which their lives intersect our own.

The first is that the beekeeper hangs on by a thread. Varroa mites and pesticides contributing to colony collapse disorder (CCD), trade pressures (and laundered honey from China), disappearing habitats, the monoculture pursued by farmers, and labor shortages—in addition to what is at times an astonishing dearth of knowledge about the basic needs and lives of bees on the part of zoologists and biologists—all ensure that the beekeeper, more than most, lives a precarious existence. Beekeeping is an occupation, a way of life, really, that requires one to expect just as many bad years as good years. Pollination (of almonds, oranges, etc.) would be a much more hassle-free, lucrative way to put their bees to work. One doesn’t go into the bee business to make money, as the current demographic trends of the industry in the last two decades reflect. Beekeepers are getting older, and many are finding it difficult to find individuals to continue the work in the next generation.

The second is that for bees (both individuals and as a collective) life is an intensely focused affair that for all but a few will be almost certainly violently cut short. For some only recently understood (but many more often hidden) reasons, as a species their existence is a continual massacre. Nordhaus reiterates the common point that those who have in recent years followed the saga of the bee already know: that without the honey industry, the bee would virtually disappear from our daily lives. John Miller has about ten thousand hives holding around eighty thousand bees apiece, for a total population of three quarters of a billion bees. But in 2004 he lost thirty million bees when a truck transporting hives crashed. In 2008 he lost twenty five percent of his hives to CCD. Acceptable yearly loss before 2007 was fifteen percent, which is a lot when you consider there are some two trillion honey bees in the United States. Now, it’s thirty percent. Hundreds of millions of bees die every year, and will continue to do so. Oftentimes, honey bee outfits only survive because Miller and others raise queens and ship them around the country especially for repopulation after a colony collapse (in fact, it’s become an industry in its own right). This remains one of the most powerful lessons of the book, and speaks not only to the stubborn resilience of the American beekeeper but to the horror of an industry which views millions of deaths as part of a cycle that constitutes the new normal.

What would happen if we put the brakes on it all? Some conservationists would argue (usually the same ones that claim we need to keep eating beef or the cow would go extinct, so we’re really doing them a favor) that the honey bee would go the way of the dodo, the golden toad, the zanzibar leopard, or the javan tiger if we no longer acted as shepherd in the cruel, modern world. Varroa would prove their demise, or habitat loss would finish them off. Yet as Nordhaus also ably relates, bees remain, more than most, a resilient species. Some few variants would undoubtedly show adaptations which would allow them to survive and even flourish in an otherwise bee-less world. Whether we’d have honey for our consumables (or honey we’d want to use) or the two hundred billion dollars’ worth of crops bees pollinate each year remains a far less relevant story, evolutionarily speaking (except, of course, to the beekeeper). Or maybe there’s a third way, where we decide responsible cohabitation of the land with other species doesn’t automatically constitute endorsement of some anti-human narrative. Or that this is an either/or proposition. If that means I pay ten or twelve of fifteen bucks an ounce for honey, then I guess that’s what I’ll do.

And in spite of the endless cycles which seem to govern the life of the honey bee as a species, they are, as I’m sure Miller or any other beekeeper will tell you, unique and distinctive in their lives. Peel back the superficial, peer into the microcosmic, and you’ll find the moods, the whims, the predilections of the individual honey bee. And that, friends, is why Kundera serves as a better title for this post. That, and Nietschze has always seemed a gloomy bastard to me.

*Header image from

Book Review- Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature

It’s a strange day when a book arrives in your mailbox to review and on the back are laudatory quotations from scholarly giants William Cronon and Richard White. Snagging one of these guys is the equivalent to scoring over a million points in Donkey Kong. Getting both is like achieving the latter upside down. It just doesn’t happen.

So I was excited to crack open Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature and see what it had to offer. I’m technically not an environmental historian, but alot of the stuff I get to read and write about intersects with notions about the natural and landscape. But this book has it’s own website. Which is kind of a Big Deal.

The short version of this review is Fiege nails it. Absolutely nails it. For the long version, read onward, oh denizens of the internet.

The best examples of historical scholarship usually do one of two things: either they open up, in dramatic fashion, new areas of exploration via methodological tools or theoretical frameworks, or they cut across the bounds of time and the scores of texts which the history profession produces to synthesize scholarship and show that what we thought was many was actually one. Mark Fiege accomplishes the latter of these in The Republic of Nature.

This is, as the author acknowledges from the outset, something of a peculiar book. It does not propose to be a radical or alternate history, refuting the claims of previous surveys of American history. And yet the narrative it weaves uncovers a tapestry of experiences and interconnections that will be striking and new to most. Indeed, it is not a comprehensive survey at all, but instead chooses nine moments of experience in American life, from the Salem witch trials, to the American Revolution, King Cotton, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, the transcontinental railroad, the Manhattan project, Brown v. Board of Education, and the oil crisis of 1973-4, to excavate the place of environment and relocate it from the borders of American history to its center.

Chapters 3 (King Cotton), 5 (Gettysburg), 7 (the Manhattan Project), and 8 (Brown v. Board) are the strongest of the book. Of these, I was most pleasantly surprised by the latter two. Throughout, Fiege marshals an impressive understanding of the secondary literature, supplemented by select primary sources, to delve into the rhizomatic. Collectively, these chapters demonstrate best what seems obvious by the end of the study: that American history is environmental history. The individual human experience remains ineluctably rooted in the demographic, the topographical, the geological, the biological, and the ecological. The cycles that govern nature equally govern human lives—work and play, love and hate, life and death. The forces that shape, equally, the countryside and the city, also influence profoundly human industry, politics, conflict, interaction, and scientific and technological inquiry. Fortunes wax and wane interchangeably according to the degree with which the natural is transported, transformed, and traversed.

To single the above out is not to suggest the rest of the text falls short. Indeed, there are moments in the chapters below that will, even to seasoned scholars, offer novel interpretations useful in constructing with more fidelity the penumbra of experience in American life. Chapter 2 (By the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God) remains the weakest, locating republican fervor in the shift from divine law to natural law and presenting the opportunity for revolution at the same time it portended trouble down the road for slavery. Fiege’s analytical framework seems the most stretched here, and has trouble accounting for the totality of experience with little information presented that does not already exist elsewhere. Chapter 4 (Nature’s Nobleman) is somewhat less thin, locating the inception and maturation of Lincoln’s particular antislavery ideology in his formative experiences as a child and young man working the land and coming up against the harsh realities of free market labor. In places, it struggles to connect this experience with the political expediencies of war and the decisions that they necessitated. Other chapters, like the first (Satan in the Land), do not suffer from analytical flaws but rather see somewhat more compelling treatment elsewhere (in this case David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder (1989)).

That this review enumerates these fuzzier moments in The Republic of Nature should emphatically not to suggest to potential readers that Fiege’s narrative is one worth passing over. Indeed the opposite—the above moments merely shine slightly less in a study that is as a whole a stunning and beautifully treated reconceptualization of the those moments in American history which survey courses have taught us to dread. 

Energy and Power: The History of Hydroelectricity in the American Northwest

Hirt and Wilma book review

Paul W. Hirt. The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ix, 462 pp. $49.95)

David W. Wilma, Walt Crowley, and the HistoryLink Staff. Power for the People: A History of Seattle City Light. (Seattle: HistoryLink in Association with University of Washington Press, 2010. Illustrations, notes, index. 131 pp. $29.95.

It is a rare opportunity to review two texts which complement one another so well with regards to theme and scope. Paul W. Hirt in The Wired Northwest presents to us an ambitious, comprehensive, and integrated history of the development of regional power in Washington, Utah, Oregon, and British Columbia from 1870-1970. David Wilma, Walt Crowley, and the HistoryLink staff, on the other hand, attempt to render in detail a microcosm of Hirt’s larger narrative—that of the history of Seattle City Light, a municipal electric utility that in numerous ways lies at the heart of Hirt’s story—during almost the same period. Together, they offer a compelling account of reification, rationalization, ideology, and regional identity.

Harnessing the region’s rivers and watersheds remains, from the beginning, central to both stories, as environmental historians of the Northwest have shown for decades. Wilma, et. al. traces the stuttering emergence of this new technology that promised to liberate the masses from the darkness in the quickly growing city of Seattle in 1886, with two dynamos generating enough electricity for just three hundred sixteen-candlepower lamps from a single hydroelectric power source. Though, as Hirt points out, initially uneven in adoption and  use, questions about who would control production, transmission, and consumption of the nascent resource would immediately engender debate between public utilities charged with providing low-cost energy to as many as possible and private companies who claimed to be the inheritors of the American capitalist spirit.

Hirt’s wonderfully rich narrative of the northwest emphasizes the region’s early adoption of the electrical revolution, pioneered by industry magnates who both lighted private residences and began the process of illuminating those job sites where artificial light promised to increase productivity and profits, like mines and shipping yards, as well as re-organize factories on both sides of the border. Subjects include the amalgamation of small utilities into ever larger ones, the enthusiastic optimism in the possibilities offered by this new technology (some of which were quickly tempered by unequal service and prices for residential and commercial customers), apprehension of growing monopolies, conflict between competing industries attempting to rationalize the river (hydroelectric versus fishing), and the distinctive nature of energy history in the Northwest,  uniquely marked by geography as hydroelectric boosters, entrepreneurs, cooperatives, and regulators followed the twisting rivers, gorges, and watersheds of the region.

Hirt tends to favor the machinations of the private utility and the needs of industry, yet given his charge to synthesize a hundred years of energy history this is not entirely his fault. Municipal utilities, as shown by Wilma, et. al., were, especially in the early years, mercurial and small in number. Indeed, Wilma, et. al. provides a balance to Hirt’s narrative of the ideological struggle which quickly developed between proponents of private and public power by reminding us of the development of a powerful electric sensibility by the masses of people that could only be sated by more reliable, lower-priced, and increasing amounts of electricity.

Together Hirt and Wilma, et. al. demonstrate the fear of “foreigners” held by West Coast citizens, as they saw bankers, financiers, and capitalists from Chicago, Boston and New York attempt to enter the electric utility market via direct and indirect avenues of influence. They both also agree that the 1915 victory of the National Electric Light Association, effectively prohibiting municipal electric utilities from selling power beyond city limits, was a serious blow to anti-corporate interests in the public-private war. This conflict would, over time, come to dominate the electric industry no just in the Northwest, but across the United States.

At the same time, they each bring independent subjects to bear. Hirt highlights the particularities of electric power in the United States and Canada, like the fact that for Canadians growth remained generally slower, government regulation less transformative (especially during the world wars), and the worldwide depression of the 1930s more inhibiting to rural electrification, technical progress, and large hydroelectric projects because of already-strained economies and cautious financiers. He also spends considerable time with the Bonneville Power Administration and the long-reaching effects of federally funded hydroelectric projects would have on shaping the industry. Wilma, et. al., on the other hand, traces in meticulous detail the Seattle City Light’s sometimes rocky growth into the largest publicly owned utility in the region. Particularly welcome are moments like Seattle City Light’s implementation of public tours from 1929-1940, designed to keep the utility in the public eye during economic hardship. Picturesque train rides, guided tours of the monumental engineering project at Skagit River, an overnight stay, and imported plant and animal life made the destination successful to the tune of twenty-two thousand visitors per year by the start of World War Two. Especially useful to the reader is Wilma, et. al.’s rendering of life as a City Light employee with respect not only to daily activities for linemen, sales people, and troubleshooters, but the extent to which they all formed a complex association of families who lived, learned, worked, voted, commiserated and celebrated together.

The two texts are not without their disagreements. For instance, Wilma, et. al argues that in the early years of Seattle City Light residential customers were charged eight cents per kilowatt hour, with reduced rates as usage increased, while for commercial customers, rates were “generally higher” (28). This is in contrast to the trend unearthed by Hirt, which without fail notices commercial customers who use far more electricity than the average residential customer enjoying significantly reduced rates. Such trends provided continuous ammunition for the multifarious interests publicly debating the merits of various degrees of public and private ownership.

Both Hirt and Wilma end their parallel narratives with the onset of the 1970s and how the philosophy of pushing unending consumption (on the basis that production would meet future needs) suffered a relatively quick, if not easy, death. Economic realities along with local and global politics changed the landscape of public and private power. New imperatives transformed what it meant to be a corporate or public electric power entity in the late twentieth century, as the advent of the environmental impact study and new definitions of conservation among bureaucrats together redefined the manner by which the public accepted the harnessing of nature’s energy for their own and future generations.


This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the Pacific Northwest Quarterly.