Wanted: Bees

Posted

Friday, April 13
BRATTLEBORO -- The state's beekeepers and apple growers are looking toward the sky, holding their breath and, like everyone else, just waiting for spring to come.

Beekeepers across the country have been reporting a mysterious occurrence that is causing entire colonies to disappear.

Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, has been reported in at least 27 states.

In most cases the bees are just disappearing, usually in a matter of days.

Scientists have been baffled by the cases, and it has not yet been identified as a disease because no one is sure what is causing all of the bees to die off.

Bees are absolutely necessary to pollinating commercial apple orchards. Most growers rent hives for the very slim window that allows them to pollinate the apple blossoms when they bloom in May.

The problem is that it's too early to be certain how Vermont's bees fared this winter.

It's a tough time of the year to be a honey bee, as the insects are running on fumes, waiting for the blooms to open so they can start gathering nectar.

And on Thursday, as another 6-12 inches of snow fell on Windham County, local orchard managers were hoping that CCD would not take hold in the state.

"It's all a big mystery," said Matt Darrow of Putney's Green Mountain Orchard. "We haven't seen a lot in Vermont but there is a lot of speculation. Nobody knows what is happening."

Most of the die-off has occurred for beekeepers who transport their colonies around the country.

Large commercial beekeepers on the East Coast start down in Florida in late winter and work their way up the coast, following spring and the cultivation season.

According to Steve Parise, the state apiculturist for the Agency of Agriculture, Vermont beekeepers largely allow their bees to spend the winter in Vermont.

In doing so, the bees are allowed to gather strength and not be stressed, he said, and they are also less likely to catch a disease, if it is in fact a disease that is killing off the other colonies.

But Parise said the increase across the country of reported cases of CCD has been dramatic this year and, with winter holding on, most Vermont beekeepers have not been able to get out to their hives to assess the health of their colonies.

"So far we have seen nothing. Not too much is out of the ordinary," Parise said. "But if it stays cold and wet it could be a problem. The longer winter stays around and the longer the flowers don't bloom and stores of food run out, the more loss there could be. There is certainly concern."

Zeke Goodband, orchard manager at Scott Farm in Dummerston, rents hives from an apiary in New York State.

Every year, as tender pink blossoms spill across his Dummerston hillsides, the New York beekeeper trucks in his hives and releases the bees to go to work.

Goodband said it would be impossible to run a successful operation without them.

He called the beekeeper and was assured that everything is on target, though Goodband said the price did go up due to CCD.

"We rely on local bees and they play a significant part in pollinating the trees," Goodband said. "But we need those bees that stay around for the 10 days or two weeks each in May."

Diana Cox-Foster, an entomology professor from Pennsylvania State University, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture last month.

Cox-Foster called CCD a "serious threat to American agriculture."

She said scientists were looking at a variety of issues including the effects of environmental toxins and pesticides, as well as the stress brought on from carting the animals up and down the east coast and forcing them to work year round.

"Maybe the bees are screaming out, 'Give us a break,'" said Bill Mares, vice president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. "People who don't move bees give them the winter to recuperate and they are generally in better shape. There are a lot of stresses put on these bees."

Mares said that while most small beekeepers who don't rent their colonies out seem to have some protection, there is concern that whatever is causing the problem will be imported into Vermont.

"The problem is that even though this is going on, if you are a large business, you can't just stop cold turkey. There is a real whirlwind of pressure," said Mares. "It is not a good time to be a commercial beekeeper."

Read Miller, of Dwight Miller & Sons Orchards in Dummerston, used to rent hives, but found that the people he was working with were not reliable.

A few years ago Miller started raising his own bees on his family's orchard.

"I love my bees. When you meet another beekeeper you always have something to talk about," Miller said. "Beekeepers all have the same attitude. I don't know how to describe it."

The income from honey pretty much pays for the upkeep, he said, and every spring he doesn't have to worry about inconsistent service, rising rental prices, or mysterious diseases.


Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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