Jon McGoran: Five Things I Learned Writing Deadout

In this riveting follow-up to the acclaimed biotech thriller DRIFT, Jon McGoran expands on the theme of genetically engineered foods, and also explores Colony Collapse Disorder, which threatens the world’s honeybee populations. Detective Doyle Carrick’s girlfriend gets a job farming job on an island in New England where the bees have started suddenly start dying off. But when a biotech company brings in genetically engineered bees that are supposedly immune to colony collapse, Doyle realizes the bees aren’t the only thing being modified. So he has to figure out what they are really up to, and stop them before their plot succeeds, and spreads to the mainland and the world.

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1) Bees are strange, freaky little creatures.

I knew that going in. The whole hive thing is weird enough, but while researching the book, I learned a lot more about them. Like, while their roles are rigidly determined  — queen, worker, drone — by a set of behavioral variables, which, if not executed just right, can spell the end of the colony. But they can also be somewhat fluid. In the bee world, eggs that are not fertilized become male bees, but in some species of bees, through a rare process called thelytoky (which is a hell of a word), male worker bees can start laying eggs that will become female workers or even queens. Frankly, the fact that together with birds, bees are half of the duo that supposedly represent human romance and reproduction makes me think I might be a little more vanilla in my proclivities that I had realized.

2) Bees are strange, freaky, BADASS little creatures.

If you’ve ever been stung, you know that. And if you’re familiar with “Africanized” or “Killer” bees, you know it even better. But they’re not the bad-ass-est. The African bees that gave rise to the Africanized bees are pretty badass in their own right. And then there are crazy, nightmare bee-creatures like the Tarantula Hawk, a two-inch long wasp that has the most painful sting of any creature in this country (yes, they are in this country) and among the most painful in the world. The Schmidt Pain Index (a story unto itself) gives it a perfect 4.0 and describes it as “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

Then there is the Asian giant hornet. Imagine an insect as big as your thumb, that flies at 25 miles per hour, and has a quarter-inch-long stinger and venom that dissolves human flesh and can cause kidney failure. It kills 30 to 40 people each year in Japan (where it is called the “giant sparrow bee”) and many more in China. I spent a little too much of my “research” time  watching videos of Asian giant hornets wiping out honeybee hives, maybe a dozen of them tearing the heads off 30,000 honeybees in  matter of minutes. Astonishingly, they’re not always successful — the bees’ defensive tactic is to cluster around the hornet, and beat their wings fast enough to raise their body temperatures so the cluster is just hot enough to cook the hornet without cooking the bees.

And what is the evolutionary justification for all this mayhem? The Asian giant hornets kill hives and eat the honey. Tarantula Hawks eat tarantulas. But the African honeybees’ aggressive behavior is defense against a predator with a bit of a badass reputation of his own. Perhaps you’ve heard of …the honey badger. (Try explaining to a renowned entomologist halfway around the world why you burst out laughing when he springs that on you in the middle of the interview.)

3) The Money Ain’t from Honey.

Most people think beekeepers make their money from honey, and smaller ones still do, but large-scale beekeeping operations make the majority of their income renting their hives out to large-scale farmers to pollinate their crops. These big beekeeping operations travel the country on tractor trailers, following the pollination seasons. California’s $2 billion almond industry depends on an estimated 1 million hives for pollination, attracting beekeepers from around the country. Those beekeepers travel around following the apple, peach, pear, blueberry and other pollination seasons. These pollination services bring in roughly $15 billion per year, about 70% of beekeeper’ income. But some people think trucking those bees all over the place isn’t the best thing for the bees, and could be contributing to something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

4) Colony Collapse is Some Scary Shit.

Even though it’s not true that Einstein once said “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live,” Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is still some scary shit. But it’s not just scary in the “We’re so dependent on bees to pollinate our food, this could actually be what ends the human race” way. It’s also creepy as hell.

Large scale CCD was first observed in 2006 by a big-time beekeeper wintering 16 million bees in tractor trailers in a field in Florida. One day, his workers went out there, and 12 million of the bees were gone. Not dead – gone. Vanished. Nowhere to be found. Sure, honeybees are small. But twelve million of them is big. That summer, CCD occurred all across the country, with beekeepers reporting disappearances of 30% to 90% of their bees. Each year since then, losses have been in the 30% range, and no definitive cause has been determined, although Neonicotinoid pesticides are surely a big part of it, and GMOs, other pesticides, industrial beekeeping practices and even cell phone towers have been suspected of contributing to the problem.

It’s so creepy that in the U.K., CCD is known as “Mary Celeste Syndrome,” after the famed ghost ship. And apart from the creepiness of billions of bees disappearing without a trace, in hives wiped out by CCD, called “Deadouts” (get it?),  the queen and the eggs are left to die, and all the honey is left behind. Very anti-hive behavior. And usually, a hive left unattended is invaded within hours, the honey, wax, eggs, etc. picked over by robber bees, beetles, moths — all sorts of scavengers. But no one messes with a deadout.

5) History Is Written by the Victors. Science is Written by the Funders.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. The corollary these days, is that the science is being written by big corporations. One of the most troubling aspects of the whole GMO controversy is the direct and indirect impact that big food and corporate biotech are having on science. U.S. intellectual property law gives patent-holders like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta a lot of say in who gets to conduct what research on their products. More important, though, is how dependent the scientific community has become on biotech money to fund research. Those companies are obviously unlikely to fund research that is against their interests, but the perception is that they are also less likely to fund any research at institutions where such studies are taking place. So even if a researcher can find non-biotech funding to pay for a long-term study into possible negative health impacts of GMOs, his coworkers — and superiors — could lose funding for their unrelated projects.  It is a chilling effect in more ways than one, and it has already impacted the body of scientific knowledge that is out there.

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Jon McGoran is the author of the ecological thriller Drift, and its newly released sequel, Deadout, which takes a chilling look at the world of GMOs, biotechnology and the disappearance of the bees. Writing as D. H. Dublin, he is also author of the forensic thrillers Body Trace, Blood Poison and Freezer Burn. He has been involved in food and sustainability for over twenty years, as communication director at Weavers Way Co-op, editor at Grid magazine, and writing about and advocating for issues including urban agriculture, cooperative development and labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Jon McGoran: Website | Twitter

Deadout: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Powells

11 comments

  • Awesome post. I have always been fascinated by bees and the social and functional nuances of their hive communities. Because of CCD, there are noticeably fewer bees where I live, but they seem to be making a comeback. Three cheers for bees! And good luck with your new book! :)

  • Whoa – I knew about GMO’s manipulating farmers so they could only make a living using hybrid seeds (stamping out heirlooms), but WOW – now they’re manipulating our science by manipulating the money behind it? Genius on their part. Maybe not so healthy for the rest of us…?
    Yeah – I gotta read this book.

    • It would boggle me, were I not a cynical old bastard always ready to believe the worst of the world, that there are people who can hold the following views simultaneously:

      1) A company spending less money funding research at places where research is being done that is inimical to their interests is evil and manipulative.

      2) If Company A does business with Company B, and Company B does something you feel is unfair, it is moral – nay, required – nay, heroic – for you not to patronize Company A.

      I’m not saying you are like that. Nor that anyone reading this is like that. But there are a lot of people like that.

      As Scott Adams has observed many a time, it’s really and truly astounding how many kinds of social commentary reduce to, “I don’t understand what the word ‘fungible‘ means”

  • Thanks, folks! Yes, lots of new respect for bees — and I was totally one of those swat-and-shriek kind of kids. Crazy-but-true side-fact: when I was writing one of the most bee-intensive scenes in the book, early in March (which is still winter in Philadelphia), my house was inexplicably invaded by hornets. I killed maybe 15 or 20 over the course of 4 or 5 days, and when I was finished the scene, they disappeared.

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