Fruitless Fall—A Book Review

by Amber on March 30, 2010

I want people to read this book! It’s important.

As a cook, I elate in every fresh fruit, nut, or vegetable that crosses my cutting board. Vanilla bean, watermelon, and almond alike are all capable of sending me skipping across my kitchen with a whistle of delight on my lips. Yet, after reading James Beard Award-winning author Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, I realize my skipping days might come to an abrupt end. The decline of the honey bee is to blame.

Honey bees and other pollinators are responsible for the production of 80% of the foods that make up our diet, according to Jacobsen. But with the rapid collapse of bee colonies around the globe, those foods stand at dramatic risk of collapse themselves. If we can’t save the bees, we won’t be able to reverse the damage to our juicy watermelons or our buttery almonds. It’s already too late for vanilla.

What in the world is causing our world’s bees to disappear? Fruitless Fall weaves a tangled web of the many possible culprits: pesticides, stress, monoculture crops, an unhealthy plant, an addiction to cheap food, and antibiotics are just a few. Put all these factors together, and you’ve got an industry rife with problems that spell annihilation for our once-buzzing bees.

Fruitless Fall provides a thorough study of the role of honey bees in our contemporary agricultural system. Jacobsen educates the reader on everything bee-related from the science of the hive, the history of their transcontinental evolutionary journeys, the economics of honey, to a prototypical—and in some instances, a realistic—world without bees. You’ll learn how bees reproduce, the healthy ingredients that make up their potent honey, and the dog-eat-dog affect of capitalism on agricultural practices that in turn affect our striped friends.

It may come as no surprise that the rapid decline in the world bee population directly coincided with the 37% rise in grocery prices in 2006. But did you know that the exorbitant cost of vanilla is also directly linked to bees’ demise? According to Jacobsen, the only native bee capable of pollinating vanilla flowers has become extinct due to deforestation. Now, the only animal responsible for that creamy, sweet spice in your morning latte is man. Vanilla plants are literally pollinated by hand, “making it the most labor-intensive crop in the world” (page 202). No other species of bee has been able to replace this labor.

Because flowers and bees have evolved in such perfect harmony, when human practices cause the downfall of one, it’s only a matter of time before we experience the downfall of the other.

Fruitless Fall reveals the ugly underbelly of our collective need for cheap food and how that’s damaging bees and the honey industry. After all, where do we turn when we want something cheap? China, of course. Jacobsen takes us to the environmental-damage behemoth of a country, where pesticides are dumped, sprayed, and injected like weed seeds, ultimately infesting its honey exports with highly damaging chemicals. Although America can’t boast a light-handed pesticide record, it still shines like a nova compared to the pesticide black hole that is China. So, while American honey bee keepers are already experiencing declines in revenue with the weakening of their hives, China’s kicking them while their down with its cheap, but illegal, chemical-laden honey exports. Meanwhile, China’s own bee population is dwindling.

Sadly, China isn’t the only culprit in this story. Packed with a deluge of hardily-researched data and stories from across our own country, Fruitless Fall paints a disheartening picture of our current agricultural system—one that is heavily dependent upon a disappearing black-and-yellow-striped workforce. Jacobsen takes his reader to the almond fields of California (our state’s biggest and most lucrative export crop) to reveal an industry on the brink of disaster if we cannot keep our bees healthy, and one that in fact, may be causing the poor health of those bees. Jacobsen informs us of one beekeeper after another whose livelihoods have failed with the insect’s decline.

Yet, Jacobsen’s story doesn’t end in despair. He introduces us to bee saviors who are using organic methods to revive the honey bee. In a world riddled with chemicals, can the organic farmers help the bee make a comeback? Can they compete?

Like any good book, this one leaves the ultimate answer to us. There’s a list of pollinator-friendly plants that you can grow in your own yard, and a list of ways to make a difference in saving the bee, the butterfly, and a host of other pollinating critters.

After all, the future of our recipes depends on it!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer April 11, 2010 at 7:37 am

So scary! Did you ever see the B-movie? Its all about this. A good way to educate kids on the story – as it is a cartoon! Thanks for sharing. I hope that someone can use technology for good and reverse the trend and reinvent the vanilla bee or find a bee that likes the vanilla flowers!

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Amber April 12, 2010 at 12:35 am

I did see that movie! It makes much more sense after reading Fruitless Fall. I'm making sure to plant lots of native bee-friendly plants. I hope that helps a little.

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Grampa's Honey August 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Sounds like an interesting book – I'll have to check it out.

We lost about 200 hives (out of 600) a couple of years ago, but have since worked hard to bring them back.

Thanks for encouraging bee friendly agriculture – and educating your readers about bees :)

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Joanne Neft July 21, 2011 at 10:35 am

Amber, this is EXACTLY why I planted 300 lavender plants last fall. Also, the bees are thriving on our giant Chaste Tree. And the yearly buzz on our 60′ Linden tree keeps the bees happy for at least 3 weeks in June/July. My garden is planted so there is something for the bees each and every day of the year. It’s simple.

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admin July 21, 2011 at 11:33 am

Joanne, Wow! I bet those bees sure like you. :) I also noticed a big improvement in my vegetable garden a few years back when my husband and I finally got our landscaping finished, complete with tons of native plants that attract pollinators like bees. They are delightful to watch and to listen to them buzzing. I hope you like this book. It’s an eye-opening and powerful read.

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