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Beekeeping in Vermont

"How are the bees doing?" is the question that we beekeepers are often asked when we interact with the public. The truth is, the bees are not doing well, but you wouldn’t know that if you listened only to the VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (“Agency of Agriculture” or “Agency”). 

In fact, the Agency claims that the beekeeping industry in Vermont is “healthy and robust” due to an apparent increase in the number of honeybee colonies registered in their database. But this measure of bee health is an illusion. 

According to the Agency of Agriculture’s own statistics, Vermont beekeepers have lost at least 25% of their bees each winter over the last 3 years. But the Bee Informed Partnership places annual colony loss much higher: Vermont beekeepers report losing 38-85% of their colonies each year over the last four years. 

Beekeepers have maintained high colony counts only by becoming bee-replacers instead of beekeepers. But replacing colonies is costly and laborious. In a 1,000-colony operation, the costs associated with replacing half of the colonies annually can exceed $100,000. Losses of this size are catastrophic and unsustainable. 

As beekeepers, we know that the proper measure of a healthy beekeeping industry lies not in the number of colonies that can be replaced each year, but rather in the viability of our own honey bee colonies. 

It’s disappointing to see the Agency of Agriculture demonstrating its lack of knowledge about the real issues facing beekeepers – the very agricultural commodity producers they are supposed to be supporting. Instead of following the science that implicates the overuse of neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) in bee colony losses, the Agency has instead blamed backyard hobbyist beekeepers for their inexperience. 

But the Vermont Beekeepers Association and local beekeeping clubs have placed considerable effort into training and educating new beekeepers. Beekeeper inexperience can no longer be blamed as a primary cause of colony health issues statewide. Indeed, these health issues have hit beekeeping operations of all sizes from hobbyists to larger very experienced commercial honey producers. The uptick in colony losses has followed the ever-increasing use of pesticides, especially since 2010 when the use of neonics became more widespread in Vermont.

For more than a decade, we, the beekeepers of Vermont, have been asking the Agency of Agriculture and policymakers for help to save our industry from the threat posed by toxic pesticides. 

For instance, 99% of corn and 34% of soybean seeds planted in Vermont have been treated with neonic insecticides even without evidence of a pest problem. Insects including honeybees are incredibly sensitive to extremely low levels of neonics. Tiny amounts of neonicotinoid insecticides - 5 to 10 parts per billion - have sublethal effects that doom a colony to death during the coming winter.

As honey bees and other pollinators forage for nectar, pollen, and water they are exposed to harmful levels of neonics. Exposure to planting dust causes immediate paralysis and death. Even tiny concentrations found in pollen and nectar cause many other problems: neonic-exposed bees behave differently, work less, are less coordinated, have trouble navigating back to their hives, and have a shortened life span. Worst of all, the bees become more vulnerable to other pathogens and parasites that prey on pollinators; indeed, bees have been experiencing their own pandemic for years. 

Native pollinator populations have similarly dropped, with 55 of the state’s  350 wild bee species in urgent need of conservation action. And let’s not forget about the birds, for whom neonics are highly toxic, negatively affecting populations. If we were to cast a net into waterways, we’d find that those ecosystems are also at risk because of neonics.  Neonics have even been found in human breast milk and amniotic fluid as well.

Sadly, there is no benefit for all this harm created. Extensive research of hundreds of field trials has found little to no economic or crop yield benefit from using neonic-coated seeds. The experience of farmers in Quebec, where treated seeds were banned in 2019, is instructive. In a panel discussion of Quebec Farmers hosted by UVM, our northern neighbors talked about their transition away from neonicotinoids. Prior to the restrictions they too heard fears of crop losses and seed availability. However, they have experienced no difficulty in getting seeds, have found untreated seed to be less expensive, and have experienced no issues with crop losses.

As an example of positive action, we look to our neighbors across the lake in New York. On December 22nd, Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law the so-called Birds and Bees Protection Act, making New York the first state to phase out the use of neonic-treated seeds. Here in Vermont, legislators are considering a similar bill, H.706. The bill has already received overwhelming support in the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate. 

As the staggering losses for Vermont beekeepers and native bee and bird populations continue, we need your support on H.706.

Jeff Battaglini, President

Andrew Munkres, Immediate Past President

Jack Rath, Past President

Contact the VBA: 

https://www.vermontbeekeepers.org/contact

Vermont Beekeepers Association

P.O. Box 764

Burlington, VT 05402