• Editor's Note Spring 2008

    Editor's Note Spring 2008

    The word ‘chores’ is spoken often in New England’s farming community, but people who work outside the agricultural sector don’t use it much. Last time many of us heard the word was when our mother told us to go do our chores–or no allowance! Nowadays, we ‘run errands’ and ‘go to work,’ reflecting our estrangement from manual labor. We certainly have as much to do as farmers, especially if we’re parents or are working two jobs to make ends meet; all of us are busy in our own way. It’s just that farmers rarely get a day off.

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  • One Greenhouse, Many Winter Greens

    One Greenhouse, Many Winter Greens

    In the depths of winter, a visit to Carol Stedman’s new greenhouse in Hartland provides a breath of spring. A sea of tiny greens waves hello. Claim a seat on the cement blocks that ring the 2-ft. high garden beds, bend over, and take a whiff of soil and fresh growing things. This is what I did on a recent January day. With snow blanketing the out-of-doors, the air temperature inside was only slightly higher than outside, not really warm. But the soil… a thermometer stuck deep in the dirt read a balmy 60 degrees. What was going on?

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  • Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • Collapse of the Colonies

    Collapse of the Colonies

    The word “localvore” may have been Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year for 2007, but a close runner-up was “colony collapse disorder,” an unexplained phenomenon in which bees disappear mysteriously from their hives. The two words are more related than one might think, though. Given the risk this disorder poses to the foods we eat in Vermont, it’s important to ask: how serious is colony collapse disorder in our state?

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  • Sweet Honey in the Raw

    Sweet Honey in the Raw

    Todd Hardie is shy and quiet, but when asked about his favorite subject–bees–he is eloquent and full of great information. Todd has been keeping bees since he was a young boy. His knowledge about bees, honey, and apitherapy–the age-old tradition of therapy from the beehive–seems boundless. And his passion and commitment to sharing that knowledge with others comes through in his business, Honey Gardens Apiaries.

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  • Set the Table with Asian Greens

    Set the Table with Asian Greens

    With names such as shungiku, komatsuna and takana, Asian greens may seem somewhat intimidating to even an experienced home chef. In recent years, Americans have become familiar with unusual greens such as bok choy and mizuna, but if you’re the adventurous type, a vast array of even more interesting Asian greens awaits. And while these varieties are not available at the corner store, local farmers who grow them can provide the freshest quality, and may also supply helpful tips for using them.

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  • Zack Woods Herb Farm

    Zack Woods Herb Farm

    The growing demand for locally-sourced products in Vermont is leading residents to look beyond vegetables and meat to another important item for consumption: herbs. As a result, herb farms such as Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, founded in 1999 by Jeff Carpenter and his wife, Melanie Slick Carpenter, are enjoying amazing success as Vermonters seek out local herbs not just for inclusion in homemade meals but for medicinal use as well. At Zack Woods, 35 medicinal herbs are grown for a host of ailments, and the Carpenters are working hard to keep up with demand.

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  • Three Square—Spring 2008

    Three Square—Spring 2008

    Growing up in Vermont, I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura day lilies. When I returned recently, to live here full-time, I began to notice how often the conversation in Vermont turns to food. What’s for dinner? For the next few issues of Local Banquet, I’ll visit a variety of people at home, peer into their iceboxes, and find out what they’re eating and why. And because these can often be personal subjects, I’ve omitted last names.

    Susan is chopping an enormous white radish. “You’re in the store and you think, why the hell would anyone buy this?”

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  • A Missing Link in the Local Food Chain

    A Missing Link in the Local Food Chain

    In good weather, the drive between southwestern New Hampshire and the Capital District of New York state can be breathtakingly beautiful: there’s the view from Hogback Mountain, the wind farm in Searsburg, the Bennington obelisk. But at 4 a.m. during a December snow storm, while pulling a trailer loaded with lambs over a foggy two-lane road, the drive is tedious at best and can be downright hairy.

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  • Cooking the Sting Out

    Cooking the Sting Out

    If you take care, and wear the proper gear, you can harvest an abundant and fascinating wild edible. Folks who have been stung by this rascal know what I’m talking about, while those who haven’t had the pleasure of eating it will undoubtedly come to appreciate this nutritious and tasty plant.

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  • Writing Down the Farm

    Writing Down the Farm

    The logic is straightforward and simple. It goes like this: Farming is the one business that everyone needs, because everyone eats. Add to it the fact that children grow up—often faster than adults can imagine. And when Vermont children become adults, they may want to become part of the local food system, either as a farmer or an eater.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Try a Little Tenderness

    Farmers' Kitchen—Try a Little Tenderness

    There are some meals that spell COMFORT to all who eat them. Leave your teeth behind. Savor the smell and the melting texture. Give yourself over to a sensuous repast.

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  • Last Morsel—The Taste

    Last Morsel—The Taste

    I roasted a loin roast from one of the pigs I’d raised—dinner plans had been canceled because of the ice storm.

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Collapse of the Colonies

Can Vermont’s Bees Remain Strong and Independent?

bees on hive

Written By

Rick Enser

Written on

March 01 , 2008

“One of every three mouthfuls of food we eat, and of the beverages we drink, are delivered to us roundabout by a volant bestiary of pollinators.”
- Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University

The word “localvore” may have been Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year for 2007, but a close runner-up was “colony collapse disorder,” an unexplained phenomenon in which bees disappear mysteriously from their hives. The two words are more related than one might think, though. Given the risk this disorder poses to the foods we eat in Vermont, it’s important to ask: how serious is colony collapse disorder in our state?

It’s easy to ignore the myriad organisms on which we depend. Most are small, unnoticeable creatures that we simply label as pests. But as we support local farmers and seek to sustain ourselves from our own gardens, we must remember that our endeavors would not be possible without pollinators–the multitude of seemingly tireless workers who transfer pollen from anther to stigma, all for the simple reward of a drop of nectar.

Pollination is the essential reproductive strategy of the world’s more than 240,000 flowering plants–at least three quarters rely on an animal to conduct the necessary transfer of pollen. The best known pollinator is the honey bee (Apis melifera), which effectively pollinates more than 100 commercially-grown crops in North America. It is the supreme pollinator, living in colonies of thousands of workers, pollinating acres of plants, and providing honey for human consumption. But the honey bee is not alone, and is not even native to this continent. For the millennia prior to the bee’s introduction, pollination was performed by a multitude of native insects, including solitary bees, wasps, flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, and thrips, as well as birds and a few mammals.

Honey bees were first introduced to North America at the Virginia colony in the early 1600’s, and from there, beekeeping slowly spread north into New England, arriving in Vermont around 1720. At first, bees were kept in makeshift hives and allowed to gather and hoard their honey supply. In the fall, keepers would simply kill the bees with a sulfur gas and destroy the hive to collect the honey, hoping they could restock in the spring by finding wild swarms.

In 1862, modern apiculture was born when L.L. Langstroth developed the movable-frame, top-bar hive. This invention permitted access to the hive’s interior so that honey could be collected without destroying the occupants. Beekeeping flourished, and by 1900, Vermont and Maine led New England in honey production.

In 1947, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated there were 5.9 million colonies in the United States, but by 2005 that number had dropped to 2.4 million. Much of the decline has been attributed to the Varroa mite, a tiny parasite that lays its eggs in comb cells so its young can feed on the developing bee larvae. Apiculturists warn that once a hive is infected with this mite, it is destined to fail within one or two years.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) gained media coverage in 2006, when some large beekeeping operations in the U.S. reported losses as high as 80% of their hives. Many causes have been suggested for CCD, including electro-magnetic radiation associated with cell phones (a theory now discounted), genetically-modified crops, malnutrition, and use of synthetic pesticides. Compounding these issues is the practice of moving colonies long distances to service crop monocultures during peak flowering periods. Notable are the large numbers needed to pollinate the California almond crop during a short period in the spring, when colonies are imported from as far away as Australia and Canada. More than half of the 2.4 million colonies in the U.S. are needed for this single crop, and the co-mingling of millions of bees, along with their parasites and diseases, increases the potential for spreading pathogens around the continent.

Experts are now saying that CCD is more likely caused by a combination of factors that stress and weaken a colony to the point of collapse. Among these stressors are malnutrition, long-distance transport of hives, Varroa mites, viral infections, other diseases (such as American Foul Brood), and the use of chemicals to control these pathogens. Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury observes that the answer to CCD is simply to reduce stress on the bees. “Just like people, if you burn the candle at both ends, or eat poorly on a consistent basis, you will be much more likely to come down with a cold.”

In the midst of all this bad news is something encouraging. According to Steve Parise, the Vermont State Apiculturist, CCD has not yet been reported in Vermont. “The decline of honey bees,” he reports, “has not been as evident here, and the number of beekeepers [about 1,600] and annual production of honey [500,000 pounds] has remained fairly constant the past few years.” This brighter picture may be testament to the good hive husbandry practiced by many of Vermont’s beekeepers, the majority of whom keep fewer than five hives. Also, many have adopted an organic approach that, in Ross Conrad’s view, “reduces stress on the bees, and is why organic beekeepers seem to be faring better during these times of such devastating losses elsewhere.”

Still, Vermont’s beekeepers must remain diligent in protecting themselves from losses caused by Varroa mites. According to the 2007 report of the Vermont apiculturist, 93% of inspected hives were infected by this parasite, and some keepers are losing as much as one third of their colonies each year. Although these numbers seem high, many keepers are breeding their own replacement stock with bees resistant to mite and viral problems. Michael Palmer, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, predicts a brighter future as more of the state’s beekeepers conduct on-site breeding and build resistance into their colonies.

Although honey bees are faring relatively well in Vermont, there is growing concern about some wild pollinators. There are 49 species of bumble bees in the United States (18 in Vermont), and some have become commercially important because they function as “buzz-pollinators”–a bee that literally vibrates pollen grains from the anthers of certain flowers, including cranberry, blueberry, tomato, and cucumber. As an alternative to honey bees (which do not buzz-pollinate), several bumble bees are imported and managed for crop production, most notably greenhouse-cultivated tomatoes. However, imported bumble bees often escape to the wild, where they can potentially infect native populations with pathogens that arise in confined colonies. As a result, several species of native bumble bees have suffered significant declines.

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences published the Status of Pollinators in North America report, warning that “pollinator decline is one form of global change that has a credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world.” Landowners throughout Vermont can help improve habitat for native pollinators by doing three basic things.

First, provide a diversity and abundance of pollen and nectar sources by planting flowers that bloom at different times during the growing season. For bumble bees, the most critical period is early spring, when freshly-emerged queens (the only members of the previous year’s colony to survive the winter) need substantial amounts of food to establish new colonies. Native or naturalized plants are considered best, since they have adapted to local growing conditions and native pollinators have evolved along with them.

Second, provide quality nesting sites. Because many native bees nest in soil, this can be done by simply providing patches of bare ground adjacent to crop fields and gardens. For some species, including mason bees and bumble bees, homemade nest boxes can be set out. Guidelines for constructing nest boxes (and selecting beneficial plants) are available from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, www.xerces.org.

Third, cut back or eliminate the use of pesticides on your land. This will reduce the chance of inadvertently killing beneficial insects and/or plants. If chemicals are deemed necessary, choose ones that directly target specific weeds or pests, and make sure your application methods reduce drift into natural habitats and are used at night, when bees are inactive. The Natural Resource Conservation Service, www.nrcs.usda.gov, offers guidance on how to improve pollinator habitat through such actions as the creation of hedgerows and wildflower meadows.

Homeowners can also learn to tolerate weeds along property edges and allow old fields to repopulate with weeds and wildflowers. Simple measures such as these will help perpetuate healthy populations of beneficial insects and ensure that the pollination services they perform in Vermont will continue to enhance our local food production for years to come.

Photo by Anicet Desrochers

About the Author

Place Holder Image

Rick Enser

Rick Enser is a consulting conservation biologist living in Braintree. He writes and speaks on a variety of natural history and conservation topics, and spends much of his time renovating an 1840 farmhouse, cultivating native plants, and playing with his 3-year-old son.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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