Excerpt from The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Beekeeper's Lament

How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

by Hannah Nordhaus

The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus X
The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus
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    May 2011, 288 pages

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Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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John Miller isn't fond of death. He takes it personally. A few years ago he even bought a Corvette, as if that could stave it off. It was a red C-5, number 277 produced that year, brand-new. He purchased it just before he turned forty-six, as the days lengthened to summer's zenith. Then he promptly fled California. East of Reno the highway emptied, and he inched the speedometer faster - 90, 100, 120, 170. He passed a souped-up Cadillac STS as if it were a dawdling tractor; the driver didn't even have time to turn his head and gawk. Miller likes numbers, so he clocked himself and did some silent math. Even going 90, the sucker in the STS had to wait forty-five seconds for a mile to pass. Miller? Twenty-two and a half seconds per mile. And just like that, he was nine hundred miles away, in Hudson, Wyoming. He stopped there for a meal at Svilar's restaurant with his old friend Larry Krause.

John Miller is a migratory beekeeper, and so is Larry Krause. They travel the country with thousands of hives, chasing blooms and making honey. Miller and Krause have been friends for a very long time, as is often the case with beekeepers. They are a dying breed, figuratively speaking. There are fewer and fewer of them, and they tend to a breed - Apis mellifera, the European honey bee - that is literally dying. Yet they persist, against all logic and pecuniary sense, because beekeepers - who have, after all, chosen careers involving stinging insects - are not terribly rational people. They are loyal people, however. Miller loves Larry Krause. He is the kind of guy, Miller says, that they don't make anymore: kind, gentlemanly, solid, unassuming - "a guy you would introduce to your mother." Krause and Miller help out with each other's bees and eat nearly every meal together whenever they attend the same beekeeping conference.

Once a year, as Miller drives from California, via Wyoming, to meet his bees in North Dakota, he and Krause go to Svilar's for a good steak. Then they head down the street to a bar "littered," Miller says with good-humored disdain, "with signed, framed pictures of dead liberals" - Roosevelt, Kennedy, even Truman. They end the night at Krause's house, where they feed the leftover steak to the dog and Miller crashes out in the guest bed. The next day, he continues on to North Dakota. Beekeepers, like bees, observe predictable rhythms, and the trip on the cusp of Miller's forty-sixth birthday was little different: steak, bar, doggy-bag, bed. Except this time, the car was faster. In the morning, he hopped back in the Corvette, and by nightfall he was in North Dakota. Another thousand miles, another day saved by the speedy sports car, one less calendar square crossed off on the march to death.

John Miller would probably agree if I said that the Corvette wasn't simply a way to go fast, or to intimidate other beekeepers, or to impress women. Rather, it was a symbol - a crude effort, as purchases made during midlife crises often are - but a symbol nonetheless: of a life unfettered, an existence unencumbered by bees and hives, by constant death, by protective suits and smokers and pasture and comb and feeders and hive tools, by semis and pallets and forklifts and other utilitarian vehicles. The Corvette was not utilitarian in the least, although it handled much more easily than a semi.

Semis are tippy and carry a lot of things. Sometimes they carry supplies, like corn syrup to feed bees during fallow times, and forklifts and pallets to lift them, and ropes and netting to tie them down, and a case of honey "for goodwill at all times," Miller says. Sometimes they carry bees loaded four hives high, which is too much for a flatbed but is stable enough on a dropdeck trailer. Most of the time. In 2004, which was the first of a series of bad years for John Miller, his brother Layne was driving a truck full of bees on Route 287 near Bear Trap Canyon west of Bozeman, Montana, when he misjudged a curve, sloshed side to side, and overturned - 512 beehives, 60,000 bees per hive, 30.7 million bees smeared across the pavement. Layne's elbow was scraped to the bone and he had to kick out the windshield to escape. He was lucky, though, because some passing drivers helped him out before the bees were fully aware of what had happened. He walked away with the injured arm and only twenty stings. Soon the bees emerged from their hives and coated the outside of the truck and its honey-slicked cargo so thickly that you couldn't see the wreckage under all the layers of distressed insects falling to the ground in big black gobs. It would be fourteen hours before a squad of emergency beekeepers could capture them, the road crew and firefighters could clear the wreck, the state transportation department could clean up the last pools of honey, and the road could reopen. Traffic returned to normal, but the lives lost that day were beyond comprehension.

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Excerpted from The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus. Copyright © 2011 by Hannah Nordhaus. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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