Friday, August 5, 2011

A True Science Mystery: The Hive Detectives

Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe
Written by Loree Griffin Burns, photos by Ellen Harasimowicz
80 pages, for ages 9 and up
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

I confess: I love bees – though not their stingers. And I love HMH’s “Scientist in the Field” series. So when Hive Detectives came out I knew I had to review it. After meeting the author, I knew I had to interview her, too. Today you get both.

This book is a mystery – after all, we still don’t know exactly what caused millions of honeybees to die off. Loree Burns deftly weaves the thrill of honeybee “crime scene investigation” with the science of bees and pollination in this well-crafted and readable story about Colony Collapse Disorder. The photography (mostly by Ellen Harasimowicz) is stunning and puts us right there in the thick of the action.

The book opens with Mary, a hobbyist beekeeper, heading out to check her hives. Honeybees are gentle, Burns assures us, though later she admits to being stung five times while researching the book. (Four of those were intentional – she was trying to get a photo of the stinger, she says.)

Then Burns introduces us to Dave Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper who manages 3,000 hives. In a normal year he follows the season, trucking hives to almond orchards in California in February so the bees can pollinate the trees and then to citrus groves, apple orchards and even the blueberry fields in Maine. It’s a lot of traveling for his bees, so after a busy season he heads to Florida to give his bees a well-deserved rest.

And that’s where we meet Dave: in Florida, in November of 2006 when he discovers that 20 million of his bees have vanished. Gone. No dead bodies or evidence of attack by pests or anything. Nothing.

How do millions of bees just disappear? That’s what Burns sets out to discover, and in her search she introduces us to the team of scientists who investigated what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder – CCD for short. Just like the detectives on CSI, the bee scientists collect evidence: pollen, wax and brood from the hives and any dead bees they find. They conduct bee autopsies, search for viruses and mites and any other causes of disease. The biggest challenge they face: most of the bees from the collapsing hives are never found. It’s hard to do science on something that is not there.

One of the things I like about this book – aside from the great appendix and resources at the back – is that Burns ends her story by returning to Mary’s backyard bee hives. “The story about Colony Collapse Disorder is unfinished,” Burns says. “We still don’t know what causes it, and it has killed a lot of bees for many years now. I didn’t want to end with the unknown and sinister; I wanted to end with hope. Bringing readers back into the hives of Mary, a backyard beekeeper whose bees are doing well despite CCD, was a way to do that.”

Because it’s a mystery story I asked Burns about how she incorporated the element of solving a puzzle.

“Every book I write feels like a puzzle that needs solving. For months and months, my job is to soak up information: I read books and articles, interview experts and spend time familiarizing myself with the topic and the techniques used to study it in the field. I immerse myself completely, and by the end of the research phase of the project, I have what feels like thousands of pieces with which to tell the story. The process begins, for me, with figuring out how to fit those pieces together into a satisfying story that will resonate with readers and keep them turning the pages.”

Burns even attended Bee School!

Colony Collapse Disorder was discovered five years ago. Has any new research come out since Hive Detectives was published?

“There have been many interesting reports, including a study that looked more closely at the effect of cell phones on honey bee health,” says Burns. “But the bottom line is that no single factor has yet been shown to cause CCD in honey bees. Scientists still believe the disorder is the result of multiple factors that weaken bees in combination, including pesticide exposure, hive pests, viruses, and poor diet.”

So what can children and their families do to protect honeybees and native bees?

“The most important thing any of us can do,” says Burns, “is to protect land from development and from pesticides. Bees need chemical-free places to forage and nest, and this includes lawns and gardens.” She also suggested that people get involved in helping scientists better understand honey bees and other pollinator species – check out The Great Sunflower Project.

After learning so much about bees, Burns wants to keep hives of my own. “There is something about working with bees that makes me feel peaceful and satisfied,” she said. “The view into the daily lives of a family of social insects is interesting, the benefit to my garden is undeniable, and the honey is a sweet bonus.” She doesn’t have her own hives yet, but has the next best thing – neighbors who keep bees. “Their bees work my gardens, I help them with beekeeping chores if they need it, and we are all in honey year round,” she says.  Pretty sweet.

You can find out more about Loree Burns at   This post is  part of a new book round-up called STEM Friday (Science Technology Engineerting & Math) hosted today at NC Teacher Stuff. On August 8 we'll go drop in on the Nonfiction Monday Round-Up hosted this week by Apple With Many Seeds.  Review copy of Hive Detectives provided by the publisher.


  1. Sue, thanks for this great post! The update and interview were very informative.

  2. Hi Sue.
    I love this series, too. This is a fantastic entry, very informative and manageable.
    Thanks for taking part in today's Nonfiction Monday event.
    Apples with Many Seeds