County's bees healthier than in many parts of U.S.; pesticides still a problem
By Gaen Murphree
DESPITE A NATIONWIDE decline in honeybee numbers because of increased use of chemicals, parasites and global warming, Andrew Munkres of Lemonfair Honeyworks said Vermont bees are generally doing OK because beekeepers are getting smarter. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Addison County is a good place to be a bee compared to many other parts of the country, local beekeepers report. And that’s a good thing.
“Roughly one-third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees,” according to Cornwall beekeeper Andrew Munkres.
Nevertheless, honey bees and other pollinators here continue to face serious challenges from parasites, from climate change, and most especially from an increased presence of pesticides and other toxins in crops and in the environment.
Given honeybees’ critical role in creating our food, understanding how to reverse this trend is important to ordinary folks and dedicated beekeepers alike.
“Even though we’re having some troubles, it’s far, far worse in a lot of the country,” said New Haven beekeeper Kirk Webster, whose business is called Champlain Valley Bees and Queens. “I hear that all the time from my customers (in other states).
“The real problem is that the chemical and seed companies are putting all these chemicals on seed coatings. And they went and got the seed coatings classified as ‘treated articles’ ... so that they wouldn’t be regulated by state and federal pesticide authorities.”
As Mraz described it, seed companies coat corn and soybean seed to prevent a range of disease and insect problems, but don’t offer farmers the option to purchase untreated seed or seed treated for pests and diseases likely to be encountered in their particular area.
“They’re using a prophylactic seed treatment, same chemicals used in Texas as used in Vermont as used in California, Nevada — it doesn’t matter where you are. A third to half of those chemicals ... we don’t even have the pests for them probably,” said Mraz.
Webster noted that he now tries to keep his bee yards clear of corn and soy fields.
“A few years ago was the one time I was really sure something had poisoned the bees,” said Webster. “I had one location that was right next to a great big cornfield, sort of wrapped around two sides of it. And the prevailing wind just blew right across there from the field right onto the bee yard all the time. And for two years in a row those bees all just went downhill and fell apart right in early June, which is usually when they’re building up to their peak.”
Webster would like to see more emphasis on organic farming.
Beekeepers know how important local farming is to their operations and emphasize a cooperative approach in figuring out how to help bees.
Still, Mraz, who runs one of the state’s largest apiaries, with hives in Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties, notices that his Chittenden County bees and bees in places where there’s pastures and haying but less corn and soybean production tend to do better in recent years.
Webster was an early pioneer in not treating bees chemically to kill the mites, but instead breeding in mite-resistant Russian bee strains to fight the plague. He feels that the mites aren’t so much a problem in his apiary. Mraz uses an organic treatment and breeding to combat mites.
Munkres, who runs Lemonfair Honeyworks, also uses what he calls the “Darwin approach” to control mites through breeding in a number of different mite-resistant strains. He likens many of the chemical mite treatments to chemotherapy — the treatments destroy the mites but weaken the bees.
Mraz encouraged Addison County residents to create safe havens for bees — even just planting a little bee balm and then sitting back to enjoy the show when pollinators come buzzing.
“I think awareness is crucial. Awareness that there’s problems and anything you can do in your own garden or yard to help pollinators is crucial. To give them a safe environment and safe forage where they can thrive.
“Bees are incredibly adaptable,” Mraz added. “But we’re coming at them faster than they can adapt.”