The State of the Bees
Written onNovember 17 , 2014
Winter is a great time to cozy up next to the wood stove with a mug of honey tea and read about bees. My own honeybees are snug in their beehives, but they’re probably not reading. They’ve formed a tight, buzzing cluster that keeps the colony remarkably warm even during the coldest winter nights. Unlike the more than 270 native bees in Vermont (including 19 species of bumblebees), honeybees overwinter as a colony and eat and move all winter long. That’s why they store up so much honey and pollen in the hive and why we can’t take too much of their stores; they need it to get through the winter. (Bumblebees, on the other hand, live in colonies during the summer but don’t overwinter in colonies. Instead, the mated queens hibernate alone in nooks and crannies, while the other bees overwinter as larvae, pupae, or adults tucked away safe from predators and the cold.)
Bees are important pollinators for hundreds of fruit and vegetable crops throughout the world, especially here in Vermont. But as critical as they are to the production of our food and the health of our ecosystems, we don’t know much about most species. Nor have we been very good bee stewards in recent years. How are our Vermont bees doing?
When most people think of bees, they only think of honeybees, or the pesky yellow jackets found at picnics (which aren’t even bees). Bees are distinguished from wasps and hornets by their hairy bodies and legs, which allow them to gather pollen—the protein source needed for bee brood. Bees are also vegetarians, while wasps and hornets are predators that prefer a juicy caterpillar (although they might visit flowers for a drink of sweet nectar).
The honeybee (Apis melifora), a nonnative species introduced into North America in the 1600s, is just one species of bee, although an important one for pollinating many food crops, and for the honey they provide. On a one-to-one basis, native bees are generally much better pollinators than honeybees, but with 30,000 to 50,000 honeybees in one hive, honeybees often win by sheer numbers. For example, bumblebees make the best pollinators for blueberries, tomatoes, and raspberries; mason bees are especially good at pollinating apples; and squash bees, as the name suggests, are excellent for squash, zucchini, and cucumbers.
Any discussion of bees these days inevitably turns to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the sudden death of honeybee colonies when the bees from the colony mysteriously vanish, with the occasional exception of the queen and a few attendants. It was first reported in 2006 by large commercial beekeeping operations that migrate around the country to provide pollinator services. Scientists now believe that various bee stressors, when combined, may be the cause of CCD. Bee stressors include such things as exposure to pesticides (including the neonicotinoids), diseases and pathogens, parasites such as varroa mites, lack of genetic diversity/resistance, and poor nutrition due to lack of quality forage or the feeding of sugar syrup to colonies instead of leaving them with sufficient honey stores. Ross Conrad, a longtime natural beekeeper and owner of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury, calls these bee stressors the 5-Ps: Pests, Pathogens, Pesticides, Pedigree, and Poor nutrition. Beekeepers moving their beehives cross-country is another major stressor for those bees, as is the poor nutrition they get from foraging on monoculture crops such as almonds, blueberries, and apples. To make matters worse, these monoculture crops are often sprayed with pesticides while the honeybees are foraging.
The good news in Vermont is that we’ve had no confirmed CCD cases, although it’s possible that some beekeepers have experienced it and not reported it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that stressors aren’t taking their toll on Vermont honeybee colonies. Winterkill of honeybee colonies (when bees die within their colonies, rather than vanish, as with CCD) is common in Vermont and elsewhere, especially with the kind of winter we had last year, when polar vortexes resulted in large temperature fluctuations. Many beekeepers reported much higher percentages of colony loss last winter than previous years. Steve Parise, the state apiculturist, puts last winter’s average loss of honeybee hives in the 25- to 40-percent range.
Typical winter loss for colonies in Vermont before varroa mites were introduced was 10 to 15 percent. The varroa mite is an external parasite that weakens bees, bee larvae, and subsequently bee colonies, making them more susceptible to die-off during winter and early spring. Varroa was introduced into the U.S. in the late 1980s and quickly spread throughout the country. Mike Willard, current president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association and owner of Green Mountain Bee Farm in Fairfax, thinks that varroa mites and the related issues they cause is one of the major threats to honeybees in our state.
Currently, there aren’t exact details on the number of beekeepers and hives in Vermont, although Steve Parise estimates more than 1,000 hobby beekeepers and approximately 20 commercial beekeepers (defined as beekeepers with more than 50 hives). The Vermont Beekeepers Association states that beekeepers in their organization have a combined 9,000 hives and are producing about 700,000 pounds of honey per year. Beginning in 2015, Vermont will be requiring a mandatory annual registration fee of $10 per apiary location in order to record key information roughly honeybees. Collecting detailed data on honeybees and their beekeepers may prompt action for improving environmental stewardship that impacts pollinator species.
While we have only estimates for honeybees, they indicate that honeybees and beekeepers in Vermont are holding steady. When it comes to our native bees, however, we have very few details and little understanding of our 270 bee species, except for bumblebee data collected by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) in 2012 and 2013. The VCE survey data suggest that several bumblebee species are in serious decline, if not extinct from Vermont. This is similar to nationwide trends, as well. Bumblebees and other native bees face the same stressors that affect honeybees—pesticide exposure, diseases, parasites, and loss of adequate forage—but there are no beekeepers taking care of them. In addition, native bees have to compete with large numbers of honeybees. Beekeepers may be putting extra stress on native bees when they increase their number of honeybee hives without considering the quality and quantity of the nearby foraging area throughout the entire foraging season.
A key stressor for native and honeybees is insecticides. These chemicals are designed to kill insects, so it’s not surprising that they negatively impact bees. Sublethal effects on beneficial insects such as pollinators are rarely adequately studied before pesticides are put on the market and widely used. One class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, is of particular importance because of its pervasiveness, its systemic characteristics within the plant (meaning it gets into pollen and nectar even if not directly applied onto the flowers), and its toxicity to bees. While neonics were only introduced into the market in the 1990s, they now make up more than 25 percent of the insecticide market worldwide. Recently, several European countries have put restrictions on their use because of the impact on bees and other pollinators. In June 2013, more than 50,000 bumblebees died in Oregon because a landscaping company sprayed blooming linden trees with a neonic-based pesticide. Eugene, Oregon subsequently banned the use of neonics in their city. In 2014, the Vermont Law School became the first higher-education campus in the nation to ban neonicotinoid pesticides on their campus because of their impact on bee populations.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture tracks pesticide use by commercial users in the state but does not keep track of homeowner use or the amount of insecticide-treated corn and soybean seed planted in the state. Virtually all of the conventional corn and soybeans grown in Vermont start from seed treated with neonics. The dust from these seeds during planting often lands on nearby bee forage. There, it gets mixed in with the pollen the bees bring back to their hives. Since pollen is part of the food fed to bee larvae, this can have serious consequences for the health of the hive. Homeowners, too, are using neonics whenever they buy typical insecticides for their gardens, or weed and feed products for their lawns. The neonicotinoids kill grubs, but since they are systemic pesticides they get into the entire plant, so any dandelions and clover in the lawn produce bee-toxic nectar and pollen.
The fate of bees is intimately tied up with our own fate, not just because of the pollination services they provide but because of their overall impact on ecosystem health. By improving conditions so that our pollinators thrive, we are taking better care of the earth, and ultimately, ourselves.
What you can do to help the bees
- Don’t use pesticides and don’t buy products from those who use pesticides.
- Keep wild areas on your property, not only for the foraging flowers they provide but for the bee nesting and overwintering sites they offer.
- If you must mow, mow fields and pastures in late October, after the foraging season is over.
- Plant “bee friendly’”plants, shrubs, and trees. The Xerces Society provides pollinator plant lists.
- Incorporate bee-nesting boxes and overwintering sites on your property.
- Educate yourself and others about the importance of native bees and honeybees in our ecosystem and food systems.
- Support local and worldwide conservation groups, such as the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the Xerces Society.
- Buy honey from local and natural beekeepers.
- Enjoy the wonder of the natural world in all its diversity and interconnectedness.