New approach to save the bees

ROSS CONRAD OF Dancing Bee Gardens puts a little smoke to his bees as he checks on hives in Cornwall. Conrad recently completed a book on organic beekeeping in which he offers natural approaches to beekeeping that he believes can help prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been mysteriously wiping out bee colonies across the country. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

July 5, 2007


ADDISON COUNTY — While apiaries around the United States grapple with what researchers are calling Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) — the mysterious disappearance of entire honeybee colonies that began last November and has been reported in 27 states — Vermont beekeepers remain virtually unaffected.

Apiculturists in Addison County say the state has avoided the disorder for a number of reasons, but most importantly, because of its lack of industrialized monoculture farms. The prevalence of small-scale apiaries, many of them organic, seems to have Vermont bees convinced that this might not be such a bad place to stick around and raise a colony, they say.

To keep it that way, local beekeepers are honing their approaches to bee husbandry in hopes the rest of the country might follow suit. Still, the search for the cause of CCD is still on.

“The bottom line is no one really knows what’s going on,” said Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Cornwall. “I think part of the reason is because everyone’s looking for a specific cause, one thing.”

Conrad, who recently published a book on organic approaches to apiculture called “Natural Beekeeping,” doesn’t believe the disorder is the result of any single problem, but the culmination of a series of issues underlying the country’s current agricultural system steadily weakening the bees’ immune systems.

In fact, he said, a weakened immune system is one of the only common traits researchers have found in the bees — usually just a queen and a few recently hatched bees — remaining after an incidence of CCD.

Unlike the states where CCD has been reported, Vermont has smaller scale farms producing varied crops. Just like humans, healthy honeybees need a varied diet, Conrad said. That’s something they rarely get in the affected states, where migratory beekeepers truck them from farm to farm following one crop throughout the year.

In many instances, the kind of pollen they are following is not even nourishing to the bees, he said. In California, for example, bees visit one almond farm after another, feasting on what Conrad classified as a kind of junk food.

“Almond pollen is mildly toxic to bees,” he said. “It’s like going to MacDonald’s every day for a month. Your health is going to get affected and your immune system is going to get weakened. And that makes you more liable to get some other sickness or disease.”

Jan Louise Ball, who has kept bees in Addison for 10 years, shares a similar outlook on the diet of honeybees.

“A species like the bee cannot live on all Big Macs,” she said. “I order new plants every year. Everything I buy is with the honeybee in mind.”

Another difference for Ball’s bees compared to some of those in commercial hives in California, is hers stay put all summer. But for migratory bees, add to poor nutrition the thousands of miles they have to travel each season, loaded into the back of a truck under a net, and the colonies can become incredibly stressed.

“How can you take something so beautiful and throw it on a truck?” Ball said. “We’re making them homeless.”

Other factors that could be affecting the bees suffering CCD are pesticide use — Conrad points especially to a nicotine-based pesticide called Gaucho — genetically modified organisms and the fact that many beekeepers feed their bees corn syrup instead of honey.

Climate change and earlier springs have also taken a toll. Plants like red maples and pussy willows, typically the first pollen sources for honeybees, have been blossoming weeks before the bees can fly in the spring, Conrad said, so they miss out on that important source of pollen.

This problem, of course, is not restricted to monoculture farms in faraway states. So Vermont beekeepers should be wary of this threat, as well as the threat of an increase in Varroa and other mites, which feed on and weaken honeybees in this area, he said.

Beekeepers in Addison County are doing plenty to ensure their bees remain unaffected.

Todd Hardie of Honey Gardens Apiaries in Ferrisburgh suggested that the organic work of so many of the state’s apiculturists has had a strengthening effect on Vermont bees.

“We’ve seen this decline and general challenges for years, and by working organically and breeding queen bees, we feel the bees (in this area) as a collective family have gotten stronger,” he said.

Conrad suggested that bees should be kept with plenty of real honey to eat throughout the winter and a varied diet for the rest of the year. He also noted that beekeepers should make sure their bees aren’t inbred with one strain of bee.

“Raise mongrels instead of thoroughbreds, so you have a mixture of genetic traits,” he said. “It seems to me the more genetic material in the bees, the more likely at least some of them will be able to survive.”

If it were up to Ball, everyone would be raising honeybees in their backyard, she said. To actualize her dream, this year she started a project to teach three Addison County women to be beekeepers. She hopes to one day start a business training women in apiculture, a duty, she noted, that has historically been assigned to women.

“I’m drawn to teaching women, because women are the nurturers, and at that this point, the bees definitely need nurturing to survive,” she said.

But Conrad noted that the bees themselves could teach human beings a thing or two about survival.

“When the hive is full and times are good, there’s lots of honey and pollen and bees, the queen will lay some queen eggs, and right before those new queens hatch, she’ll take half the bees, fly away and start a whole new hive and leave behind everything she’s built for her daughters to inherit,” he said.

“That queen already has the experience of building a hive,” he added. “They know they can do it. So they trust the universe will provide for them again.”

Conrad will give a presentation on CCD, offering long-term approaches to maintaining healthy hives, on Thursday, July 12, at 6:30 p.m. at Carol’s Hungry Mind Cafe in Middlebury.

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