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Loss of Vermont hay fields limits food for bees

BETH GARBITELLI 12:13 a.m. EDT April 14, 2014

A slow change in agricultural practices is having an unintended consequence: limiting food for bees.

Since the 1980s, Vermont has lost more than 100,000 acres of hay fields that used to be full of bee friendly blooming alfalfa and clover. That means bees today aren’t finding as many flowering plants as they need to flourish. And while hay is still grown, it is often cut before it can bloom, making it more nutritious for cows but bad for bees.

“Everything with bees is a negative. They don’t have anything going for them right now,” said Chas Mraz, who operates Champlain Valley Apiaries, one of the oldest commercial beekeeping operations in Vermont. Mraz’s family started their bee business in 1931, and he took over in 2004. 

Mraz isn’t the only commercial beekeeper who has taken a hit from bee problems. The number of commercial honeybee colonies in Vermont has been more than halved since 1987, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates.

The decrease in hay fields — in line with the overall dwindling number of farms in the state — is just one factor affecting bees. Mites, viruses, bacteria and pesticides have also contributed to the bees’ decline. On top of that, colony collapse disorder has caused about a third of bees to die across the United States each winter since 2006. In addition to making honey, bees pollinate crops and are essential for healthy ecosystems, so the disappearance of honeybees nationwide has alarmed scientists.

In Vermont, honey is considered one of the state’s many artisan goods, selling just $1.5 million annually, according to state officials. In comparison, gross dairy sales in Vermont total $1.2 billion a year, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of the state’s agricultural sales, according to the University of Vermont.

But what’s good for the dairy industry isn’t too good for the bees. New information on how to improve the diets of cows to increase milk production has driven farmers to manage hay more closely, cutting it early to maximize its nutritional value for them — at the bees’ expense.

As a result, Vermont cows are producing more milk than they did decades ago. In 1980, an average cow made 12,300 pounds of milk, but in 2013, the average was 19,500 pounds per cow, said Bob Parsons, an agricultural economist with the University of Vermont Extension.

Despite the increase in production, farmers have still had to combat the rising prices of corn feed caused by the increasing demand for ethanol. Now some farms are growing more corn to save money. Dairy farmers don’t have it easy, though. Milk prices haven’t increased to keep pace with feed cost increases, according to a UVM report from Parsons.

Corn isn’t a good crop for bees because it doesn’t produce nectar and is pollinated by wind. Without blooms in lush hay fields to attract them, bees often have no other option but to turn to corn pollen. And because corn is often treated with pesticides and fungicides, its pollen can hurt bee hives, Mraz said.

“It’s not the dairy farmers’ fault. It’s basically the economics of dairy farming and how it’s changed,” Mraz said.

With a lack of forage, bees’ immune systems are compromised, making other problems, like parasites and disease, harder to fight.

“Certainly loss of forage, mites and diseases will have an effect on the ultimate production in any given year,” said Stephen Parise, an agricultural production specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture who focuses on bees. But it’s difficult to compare yearly data since honey crops vary because of weather and other factors, Parise said.

Commercial beekeepers have responded to the bee decline by changing their business practices. Mraz now supplements honey sales with bee venom sales and honey packaging. Honey production used to account for more than 50 percent of the business, but now it’s a third, at most, he said.

“If we were just in the honey production alone, we’d be out of business,” Mraz said.

Mraz said bees could get a boost if farmers would include alfalfa, white clover or alsike clover in pasture fields or strips of land around their crops. Sid Bosworth, a UVM Extension agronomist, is testing a seed blend that he hopes can feed bees but maintain enough nutrition for cows, thereby helping both industries.

But time may be running out for the battered bee populations.

“I don’t know if individual efforts will happen fast enough to make a difference,” Mraz said.