Wet weather, pesticides sting county’s beekeepers

ADDISON COUNTY — Andrew Munkres’s summer has gotten off to a busy start. As a bus driver during the school year, he looks forward to summer when he can return to his 150 hives at the Lemonfair Honeyworks in Cornwall.
“It’s pretty hard work for a summer vacation,” he said. “In the spring when the beekeeping is ramping up and the school year is slowing down, it’s pretty tough juggling both.”
Now that school is out for the summer, he can devote his energies to helping the colonies produce honey fulltime. This spring brought some initial success. In a given season, Munkres says a colony can produce 50 to 120 pounds of raw honey. But with the torrential rain from the past few weeks, the “main flow” of the season has brought spotty success.
“The clover and the other plants the bees are working are just drowning,” he said. “We just need a little more dry weather and then I think the bees will go crazy.”
In addition to the uncooperative weather, beekeepers also have to contend with bigger challenges than rain.
Citing parasite infection and chemical pesticides, this month the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources added three species of bumblebee to the state’s list of threatened and endangered species.
While the rusty-patched bumblebee, yellow-banded bumblebee and Ashton cuckoo bumblebee aren’t kept by beekeepers in Addison County, that development for some is worrisome.
A recent concern among beekeepers is the widespread use of a group of insecticides referred to as “neonicotinoids,” pesticides used on agricultural crops, and in concentrated doses on home gardens, lawns and ornamental trees. While other pesticides are sprayed on crops when needed, plants pre-treated with these chemicals need no additional application and affects animals that come into contact with them throughout their lifespan. A study produced by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found these chemicals to be highly toxic to honeybees. These pesticides have been banned in parts of Europe as well as in Ontario, Canada.
East Middlebury’s Ross Conrad has been keeping bees for 23 years and learned the trade from other longtime apiculturists. He’s a former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association and the author of a book on natural beekeeping. In addition to beetles, moths, mites and other insects that can cause problems in the hives, Conrad said beekeeping is more difficult than it was 30 or 40 years ago due to an expanding array of chemicals used to treat crops.
“It’s more of a blanket approach,” he said. “Farmers are using these chemicals whether they need them or not.”
Charles Mraz is owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries, a third-generation beekeeping operation in its 85th year. While the Middlebury company has kept 1,200 colonies in Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties, the company this year is keeping half of that due to two harsh winters and persistent die-offs in the bee colonies. Mraz said he thinks the pesticides have an effect on the colonies. 
“You can’t have pesticides in the flower and not expect it to affect bees,” he said.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has tested for traces of pesticides, and detected them at varying levels throughout the year.
Not all beekeepers are convinced that pesticides are harming their hives.
Munkres, for one, said further research is needed.
“A sample size of two does not data make,” he said.
Valarie and Scott Wilson have been keeping bees for nine years with Heavenly Honey Apiary and say they’ve seen no evidence of pesticides negatively affecting the 30 hives they keep in Monkton, New Haven and Hinesburg. As for studies on pesticides’ effects on honeybee populations, Scott Wilson said he remains unconvinced.
A bigger issue for his colonies this season, he said, is the amount of rain the area has received this spring. Bees can’t fly in the rain and flowers can’t open, which reduces the amount of pollen bees can collect and the honey they produce. Without sufficient honey, the bees and their keepers, especially newer beekeepers, will be challenged in preparing their hives for the winter.
Despite the wet start to the season, Wilson said their hives remain in good health and are producing honey.
“They’re doing wonderfully,” he said. “I’m really impressed given the weather conditions how healthy the bees are. It’s very encouraging for us.” 
In addition to the discussion around pesticides, beekeepers also have to contend with other pests. Mites like the varroa mite attach to the bee larvae and feed off of their blood. Mites can multiply quickly and increase the risk of virus infection within a hive. To prevent the spread of mite infection, beekeepers will encourage the breeding for mite-resistant traits or treat the bees with mite-killing sprays. Beekeepers also distribute hives around a wider area to keep a sick hive from infecting others.
Munkres says problems arise when the risk of viruses is combined with the crops treated with pesticides. While the hayfields of Addison County aren’t treated heavily with pesticides, some row crops like corn or soybeans are.
The answer to solving the troubles facing bees, Munkres said, is more complex.
“What I like to tell people is the answer is usually “E,” which is all of the above.”

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