MIDDLEBURY — For veteran beekeepers at Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury, late summer is the sweetest season.
It’s now, after all, that a year’s worth of hard work pays off. Beekeepers last week began extracting honey from the business’s 1,200 colonies, which dot Vermont from Whiting north to the Canadian border. In a time when honeybees are falling prey to more and more stresses — like parasitic mites, pesticides and mono-crop diets — the act of making honey is a welcome reminder that in some places, like Vermont, honeybees are hanging on.
That’s not to say that beekeeping — both as a business and hobby — doesn’t face risks in the Green Mountain State. Globalization means that bees are facing more diseases, more frequently, and businesses like Champlain Valley Apiaries have had to adapt to keep pace.
The process of making and selling honey is also prone to good years and bad. Hard winters can wipe out big chunks of the bee population, and the honey harvest is easily affected by the weather. This year, it’s too early to know just what the harvest will yield — though the rainy weather through much of July meant the bees weren’t making as much honey.
WAX HONEYCOMBS CONSTRUCTED by bees inside a wooden frame hold the precious honey before it is extracted inside a spinning centrifuge.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
But the third-generation owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries, Chas Mraz, has good news to report: the first honey of the season is flowing.
Mraz ambled over to a large vat in the old house the business occupies. It’s busting at the seams in this building, which the company moved into in the 1940s.
The air inside the humming warehouse smelled faintly of honey and beeswax, and errant European honeybees buzzed toward the windows. Mraz pulled the tap at the base of the large vat, where freshly extracted honey came trickling down from a rumbling machine upstairs. A viscous stream of golden honey poured out of the tap and into a small glass jar.
This is the freshest honey of the season — filtered, but unheated, and a rich amber color. It will eventually be blended with honey from around the state and poured into huge 55-gallon barrels. It’s liquid out of the comb, but will crystallize naturally in about a month.
“This is honey that’s just been extracted,” Mraz said. “Taste this. I don’t think anything beats fresh honey.”
DODGING COLONY COLLAPSE
So far, Vermont’s beekeepers haven’t been hit by the mysterious syndrome that has wiped out colonies around the country, known now as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. When a colony collapses, worker bees from a beehive or European honeybee colony disappear abruptly.
Such disappearances have happened occasionally throughout the history of apiculture, but never in as great numbers as the colony collapses since 2006.
No one understands fully what causes the disappearances, though many beekeepers chalk it up to a number of factors: the Varroa mite and other parasites; pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids; malnutrition; and migratory beekeeping.
When enough stresses bombard a colony, some beekeepers think, colony collapse is inevitable.
“A lot of beekeepers are pollinators first (and honey makers second),” Mraz said of other commercial beekeepers in different parts of the country.
That means bees are shipped thousands of miles on semi-trucks to pollinate crops, and put on a “mono crop” diet.
Mraz thinks Vermont’s bees have been safe, so far, for a couple of reasons. Bees typically graze on hay fields, which aren’t treated with many pesticides, he said. In Mraz’s case, the bees aren’t fed high fructose corn syrup — a method some large-scale commercial beekeepers use to feed bees through the winter.
And at Champlain Valley Apiaries, the beekeepers just pollinate one apple orchard in Vermont — and Mraz said that if their orchardist started using pesticides or neonicotinoids, the apiary would pull out.
Though CCD hasn’t plagued Vermont beekeepers, plenty of other problems have.
Just ask Bill Mraz, Chas’s father. He came back to beekeeping after a career as a mechanical engineer, when he and Chas took over the family business from Charles Mraz, the apiary’s founder.
Chas and his father, Bill, both grew up around bees, so when Charles — Bill’s father, and Chas’s grandfather — grew too old to run the business, the second- and third-generations of the Mraz family took up the helm.
Bill’s long history with the bees means he’s seen plenty of changes in the business. Some of those changes boil down to technology: last week, he was loading frames heavy with honey into the apiary’s extractor, where the wax coatings on the frames were scraped off and the honey drained from the wooden frames.
Back when he was a boy, he said, he’d used a long thin knife to “uncap” the frames, or remove the wax that sealed in the honey.
“The bees haven’t changed at all in 10- or 20,000 years,” Bill Mraz, 73, said. “Globalization has been the big thing that’s hammered us.”
What has changed are the diseases preying on the bees.
One of the biggest challenges is the Varroa mite — a parasitic insect that infects hives, and one of the factors that some scientists have pinpointed as another straw that tips the scale toward colony collapse.
The mite first cropped up in the south, and had it spread naturally, it may have only moved 40 or 45 miles a year. But changes in the business mean some commercial beekeepers truck their colonies thousands of miles to pollinate crops, which hastens the spread of diseases.
“That’s how they got here in the first place,” Bill Mraz said. “It’s another globalization affect. Usually a disease would come every 20, 30 years, and your bees would have to deal with it. Now it’s just continuous.”
The mite weakens the bees, and can eventually kill colonies if left untreated. The mites invade the brood cells in a hive, where bees are being raised, and feed on the emerging bees.
That leaves open sores on the young bees, which makes them more susceptible to other illnesses.
The Mrazs are fighting the mites in two ways: first, with formic acid, an organic treatment that dissolves the soft shell of the mite. It’s more effective than a lot of other chemicals that the mites can build up a resistance to, Bill Mraz said.
In another, more long-term fight against the mites, Champlain Valley Apiaries breeds its own bees. By breeding the survivors, Mraz explained, the apiary is building up a stronger genetic strain of the honeybee. Over the course of enough generations, they hope they’ll breed bees with stronger defenses and genetic responses to fight the mite.
“My feeling is that we have made progress,” Chas said. “The bees have made progress. Our approach is, I think, correct. People want to go in with a hammer and solve the problem. They want a perfect scenario, and it doesn’t exist. … It’s kind of helping nature along, but letting nature take its course.”
THE BUZZ ABOUT BEES
The bad news about all of this is that beekeeping is more difficult than ever. Warding off parasites, diseases and pesticides is a tall order for commercial and hobby beekeepers alike.
Plus, keeping bees alive through the winter in Vermont is tough. Cold winters without any thaws can take their tolls on the bees, and hives also need to be supplied with enough honey going into cold months for bees to make it through to spring alive.
Last year, without many thaws for bees to clean out their hives during the winter, the Mrazs lost about 25 percent of their bees — and that was a better outcome than they’d expected.
“It’s a tough time to keep bees, and I commend all the people who are. It’s not as easy as it used to be, and coming back from your losses every year can be very dramatic and depressing,” Chas said. “It takes real dedication.”
Still, local interest in the hobby is on the rise.
“(The Vermont Beekeepers’ Association) membership is skyrocketing,” Chas said. “I think, with all the CCD press that is going around, peoples’ personal antennae went up and people started to realize that it’s important to keep bees and make sure they stay around. Basically the more people who keep bees, if they keep them responsibly, the better.”