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Originally published Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Fruitless Fall": We really, really need those bees

In "Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis," author Rowan Jacobsen considers the dire implications of the worldwide collapse of the honeybee population.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis"

By Rowan Jacobsen

Bloomsbury, 245 pp., $25

In November 2006, writes Rowan Jacobsen, a mysterious disaster befell all but 32 of beekeeper Dave Hackenberg's 400 hives in Florida. This owner of one of Pennsylvania's largest apiaries had sent his bees south since the 1960s because nectar flowed much of the season and colonies overwintered more easily in the milder climate.

Suddenly, however, hives that should have been teeming were empty except for a few nurse bees clustered around their queens. Hackenberg assumed he'd made some critical mistake, but in fact, beekeepers along the entire East Coast "watched their hives go from bustling colonies to ghost towns in a matter of weeks, with no sign of why."

Then the situation worsened. By spring 2007, "a quarter of the northern hemisphere's honeybees were AWOL." Worldwide, these unexplained losses were devastating.

Bees play a crucial role in everyone's lives, Jacobsen explains in his new book, "Fruitless Fall," because 80 percent of the food we eat relies on pollination, that is, fertilization of flowers. Although a few plants such as corn, oats and pine trees depend on wind-borne pollination, flowering species have required insect helpers for some 150 million years. And lest you think, well, OK, fewer fruits and veggies, no big deal, remember cattle and chickens need grains and greens, and cotton for clothing won't grow without pollinators, either.

But why would bees — famed for their highly organized social intelligence — fly off to forage then never return? Jacobsen, author of "Chocolate Unwrapped" and "A Geography of Oysters," observes that a "good whodunit needs numerous suspects." As he hunts for the culprit(s), a daunting number of possible perpetrators appears in his lineup. Maybe electromagnetic radiation? Or genetically modified crops? Global warming, the ozone hole, drought? Acute and chronic exposure to pesticides and/or antibiotics? Stress from being trucked all over the country to pollinate crops that no longer have enough local pollinators? Miticides or mites themselves? Malnutrition? Viruses? Parasites or fungi? Did lethal combinations trigger what's now called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?

"I'm surprised honeybees are alive at all," Jerry Hayes, Florida's state apiarist, tells Jacobsen. What little research done on CCD shows that bees now suffer so many stressors, their immune systems are failing. They have "something akin to bee AIDS."

They "act different," Hackenberg adds. "They just sit there. Won't cluster, won't go anywhere, won't eat, won't build up." They have memory loss, disorientation, nervous-system disorders.

Jacobsen avoids the easy analogy that bees are contemporary canaries in a coal mine, but clearly their baffling difficulties reflect life-threatening breakdowns in their natural world. It's hard to believe that Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring," illustrated this panoply of problems almost a half-century ago and that so little has been done to address poisoning our environment. But in choosing his title, Jacobsen underscores the metaphor: A silent spring will cause a fruitless fall.

His fascinating book is written for a general audience, introducing readers to honeybees' life cycles, how hive intelligence works — no one is in charge; they don't compete — and how colonies survive winter. He describes varroa mite infestations that have killed millions of colonies since 1987 as well as California's almond industry and what CCD could mean there.

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He also acquaints readers with different bee species — globally numbering 20,000 — and how Apis mellifera, the European import we depend on so heavily, has been bred for efficiency rather than resiliency.

Too, he delves into possible solutions to the crisis, the healing powers of honey, Africanized "killer" bees and 10 tips to adopt at home.

In nature, certain animals are "keystone species." That is, like the keystone in an arch, if removed, the entire dependent structure crumbles.

Bees, though small, fulfill key roles not only in our future but also for plants and animals that evolved with them. The importance of bees' survival can't be overemphasized.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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