Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

FEATURED: FRUITLESS FALL by Rowan Jacobsen [Vol. 2, #10]

Part Science Text, Part Horror Story

A Review of
Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee
and the Coming Agricultural Crisis
by Rowan Jacobsen.

By Mary Bowling.


Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee
and the Coming Agricultural Crisis
Rowan Jacobsen.

Hardback: Bloomsbury, 2008.
Buy now from:
[ Doulos Christou Books $20 ] [ Amazon ]

Rowan Jacobsen’s book Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of The Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis is part science text, part horror story and certainly a cautionary tale aimed at a global audience. In a time when huge-scale economies are the driving force behind agriculture, farmers and beekeepers alike have felt enormous pressure to grow not food primarily, but rather business. A small farm cannot compete to support itself, not with all of the inputs necessary to make it run, like seed, fertilizer, pesticides and plenty of heavy machinery, not to mention the farmer’s time and transportation costs. Likewise, a small apiary (bee farm) cannot compete with the ridiculously low price consumers pay for foreign honey. Factor in the multitude of uncertainties that come with keeping bees and the similarly high price of inputs, and it’s a wonder anyone is still even willing to try to produce honey.

            But honey is not really what most bee farms are about anymore. Honey used to be regarded as the most important product of a beehive, but in recent years and with recent trends in agriculture, pollination is as important as anything else in farming. For years, small farms and beehives co-existed, with bees doing their work almost invisibly and providing their rich rewards to people without a whole lot of fuss. But when farms decided to go big, the scale became such that bees couldn’t effectively pollinate crops on their own and pollinator rental became common, even necessary.  Now bees are responsible for making billions of dollars worth of food possible each year in the U.S., and by traveling constantly from one huge mono-crop to another when the season is right, honeybees have come to function as both marathon runners and workhorses.

            Rowan Jacobsen traces the history of the interactions between farms and bees from the time the honeybee was imported to the New World (and before) all the way up to the modern world (and beyond.) He has clearly done a lot of research into the workings of bees and hives, and has followed several sources around the country to see why things seem to be breaking down so quickly with this age-old relationship between bees and plants and what that means for the future.

            Jacobsen begins his book with a bee farmer wondering what in the world is happening to all of his bees, who seem to be gone without a trace.  He then takes us into the wonderful and complex world of bees themselves to help us understand the inner workings of a healthy hive of bees. We then learn (if we haven’t heard already) about a terrible new something that is gripping bees all over the United States and other parts of the world. Is it a disease? A new parasite to join the host of others that beekeepers already have to worry about? Some strange new behavior brought about by the invisible technologies all around us? Chemical poisoning from pesticides? Is it all of the above and even more? Jacobsen spends several chapters delving into the problem that has confounded all who have tried to identify it in the last few years. We get a sense of the sheer out-of-the-blue-ness of this problem from Jacobsen’s quotes of a Florida beekeeper who can hardly find words (except four-letter ones) to describe what has happened to his bees.  Jacobsen himself describes the difference between healthy hives and ones that had collapsed:


“In a healthy colony, intelligence flashes between individual bees like electrical signals between neurons. Every bee is on task. The impression is not of thousands of individuals but of one fluid intelligence – an impression made all the stronger when the intelligence efficiently flicked out a tendril and stung my ear. But the collapsing colonies I witnessed gave no signs of intelligence. There were usually a few bees, yes, but they were wandering without purpose like survivors of an apocalypse, which they were.”


            After a thorough look at the many (it’s scary how many) reasons why bees and thus agriculture itself may be melting down, he then goes on to share some hopeful stories from people who have also invested much of their lives in caring for bees.  He then takes another look at the relationship between the food we eat and the insects that make it possible.

             Like other agricultural prophets of our time, Jacobsen’s storytelling can be both disturbing and encouraging in turn. And like a handful of others, he urges that common sense and care should come before production and profit. He includes several appendices and resources for others who would like to try to enter the fascinating world of the honeybee, or who would like to include pollinators of various kinds into their agricultural worldview.   

            As a hobby beekeeper, I found that Rowan Jacobsen’s book reinforced some things I already knew about beekeeping without being boring in the least, and presented plenty of new concepts without being overly technical. His language was very accessible and engaging and the topic (although I’ll admit that I’m plenty partial) was thoroughly fascinating. At the end of the book, Jacobsen decides to keep a couple of hives and see for himself, something I would encourage others to do as well after finishing this book.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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