Birds & Bees: Q&A with Rowan Jacobsen

interview by Sharon Kitchens

Rowan Jacobsen is the James Beard Award-winning author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North AmericaFruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, and The Living Shore, about our ancient connection to estuaries and their potential to heal the oceans. He has written for the New York TimesNewsweek,Harper’sOutside, Eating Well, Forbes, Popular Science, and others, and his work has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writingand Best Food Writing collections.


As a fan of Margaret Atwood’s excellent novels (I even named one of my chicks after her), I appreciated your reference to her award-winning book The Handmaid’s Tale when describing a world without bees. Would it be fair to then equate the founders of the Republic of Gilead with those who run Monsanto and Bayer and perhaps to a much lesser extent Migratory Beekeepers?

That’s an interesting concept! I don’t know if the metaphor can hold together if pushed much, but yes, you could say that the entrenched power has messed up natural fertility through its environmentally destructive practices, and that its “solutions” keep making things worse. So maybe it does work.

Have you heard of any documented examples of Colony Collapse Disorder in New England?

The thing about CCD is it’s a syndrome—a cluster of symptoms that occur together, rather than a disease with an identified agent–so it’s impossible to say for sure when a hive has CCD. You can just watch an apiary collapse and say, “Yup, sure looks like CCD to me.” You can’t proove it, and I suspect that there are multiple agents out there that cause colonies to collapse in similar patterns and get labeled CCD. But definitely some of the big migratory beekeepers that work the cranberries in Massachusetts and blueberries in Maine have succumbed. And I know plenty of small beekeepers in VT who have suffered CCD-like collapses.

In my beekeeping class (run by University of Maine Extension) they advocated for the use of pesticides to fight Varroa mites and other pests. After seeing “Queen of the Sun” I purchased Russ Conrad’s Natural Beekeeping and set about learning the holistic way to keep my bees healthy and productive without toxins.  There seems to be so little information available on natural beekeeping, I’m wondering if you have any advice on where beginner beekeepers (or even experienced ones who want to transition to the natural approach) can learn more about how to treat pests without pesticides. The argument that Varroa mites adapt to chemical treatments seems a logical one, but I’m a complete newbie to all this and want to try and prevent making a mistake that will endanger my bees.

Ross’s book is a good place to start. Nobody has come up with a surefire way to beat varroa; it’s more a question of keeping it down to a dull roar. You could check in with Kirk Webster in southern Vermont. Also, check out Randy Oliver’s website, Randy isn’t anti-pesticide, but he’s very smart and thorough, and thinks through these things a lot better than most of the beekeepers I know.

When people ask me if I decided to become a backyard beekeeper to save the bees I tell them no. If you just want to help save the bees I tell them to plant bee friendly plants in their yard and let the dandelions grow (most people I know thankfully are not the sort to use chemicals on their land). In your book and elsewhere I’ve read how monocrops and suburbia have bees traveling further for food sources. What would you tell someone who wants to help save the bees to do?

Exactly right. I tell people who want to save the bees to think about bumblebees, rather than honeybees. They are our native pollinators, vital to a number of ecosystems, and all they ask is that you give them some flowers to plumb. I love watching bumblebees in my gardens. Plus, they are maintenance free, and it’s very hard to get one to sting you (or any little feet that may be wandering around your yard).

I can’t help thinking about “Ulee’s Gold”, a film I saw recently and how Peter Fonda’s character tells his son about the Varroa mites are threatening his livelihood as a maker of the famous Tupelo Honey. It’s such a beautiful film. Since it was released over 15 years ago and according to an article in USA Today from 5 years ago CCD was still not present in the Florida Panhandle where Tupelo Honey is produced. Since a lot more has been documented on CCD since then, do you know how much has the production of Tupelo Honey been affected by CCD in recent years?

I was just on the Apalachicola River in the Florida Panhandle a few weeks ago, looking at the hives of this very cool beekeeper who transports his hives on a barge up and down the river and deploys them on docks in the tupelo swamps during the season, so he gets 100% pure tupelo honey. He is having the worst year ever, in terms of dying hives. He thinks he may have CCD, but he says that varroa and small hive beetles are still his biggest problems. He says if things don’t improve next year, he’ll be forced to get out of the business. Florida has so many bee problems it’s hard to know where to start.

Photo: California Literary Review

Editor’s note: Sharon Kitchens is documenting her entire Birds & Bees experience on her blog Delicious Musings. Check out the post about her second hive inspection. The Maine is pleased to team with Sharon for this book giveaway!