Summer blossoms lead to a strong honey harvest

ADDISON COUNTY — The same lack of rain that has led to a smaller apple crop in Addison County and statewide has for the most part been a boon for bees in terms of clover-based summer honeys. But the slide from low rainfall to moderate drought the past three months has also dried up fall harvests that are based on wildflowers.
“The clover bloomed beautifully. There was clover everywhere,” said third-generation beekeeper Charles Mraz of Middlebury’s Champlain Valley Apiaries, describing what made 2016 such a good year overall for bees and honey production.
Mraz said that the reduced rainfalls this past spring were just right to produce beautiful clover, whereas wetter weather in spring and early summer tends to favor grasses. When the grasses zoom up in wetter years, the clovers don’t bloom as prolifically.
Clover, said Mraz, provides the source of around 70 to 80 percent of the honey gathered in Addison County.
Rainfall was down as much as 50 percent in Addison County from spring to mid-summer, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Nash, while from mid-summer to now as much as 75 percent less rain than typical has fallen.
Mraz and beekeepers Andrew Munkres, of Lemonfair Honeyworks in Cornwall, and Kirk Webster, of Champlain Valley Bees and Queens in New Haven, all reported a good to above average harvest of honey made from spring and summer blossoms.
Munkres explained that in an average year a colony — a queen plus her worker sisters and male drones, totaling around 70,000 bees at the height of summer — will produce about 60 pounds a season. A good to great year might bring in 80 to 100 pounds per colony, and a poor year just 30 pounds per colony.
Mraz called it a “decent year,” at around 85 pounds per colony. Munkres reported a “great” season for honey made from spring and summer blossoms, while Webster reported bringing in about 100 pounds per colony.
Said Webster, “The bees have been kind of on a roll for the last three years 2014, 2015, 2016 — all three of them have been the best harvests since 2005. There really was a long series of mediocre or poor years for honey crops that ended, for the moment anyway, in 2014. But this year was my best of those three.”
Of the weather, Webster said, “It’s not completely predictable one way or another, but over my career I’ve definitely done better on average in the dry years rather than the wet years.”
However, as the year’s rainfall slid, summer to fall, from “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought,” Munkres said that fall wildflowers continued to bloom but were too stressed to produce nectar. Consequently, bees made very little honey from fall wildflowers.
“It was quite strong, and then it was just like somebody turned off the faucet,” Munkres said.
The Champlain Valley, all three said, is the state’s most important honey-producing region because of its mix of wild and agricultural land — pastures, woods, fields and other kinds of forested and open spaces.
“That’s actually one of the nice things about Vermont. If you compare us with, say, Indiana, there’s a much more diverse landscape use here in that every inch of every farm is not planted in corn and soybeans,” said Munkres. “So you have acreages that are growing back to forests. And there’s lots of fireweed and asters and goldenrod and what have you. And then there’s other areas that are pastured for cows, and it grows up to the white clover in the summer. So there’s a real variety of stuff out there for the bees.”
Munkres added, “Generally, the Champlain Valley is considered one of the best places in New England for bees.”
All three beekeepers described in detail the progression of blossoms that are typically converted into Addison County honey — and all three emphasized how differently the progression of blossoms can vary year to year. Typically, the bees’ spring begins with blossoming soft maples, followed by dandelions and then white clover and other legumes including vetch and yellow trefoil. Other important summer blossoms can include sumac, basswood and locust.
“The fall crop often comes from the wildflowers which would be known to the dairy farmers as weeds,” said Munkres, referring to a group of plants that include goldenrod, asters, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, fireweed, purple loosestrife, and star thistle.
Mraz noted that the invasive bush honeysuckle makes wonderful honey.
Asked whether the Champlain Valley apple crop is important to making honey, Munkres said that bees and local orchards overlap by about 10 days only, when the bees are brought in for the critical job of pollination. Afterward, the two must part ways because bees can’t tolerate the pesticides and fungicides needed to raise apples commercially, even with Integrated Pest Management or organic practices.
Because the blossoms from clover and its cousins are so integral to the Addison County honey harvest, all three apiarists described a close relationship with the region’s dairy industry.
Said Munkres, “The future of the beekeepers is inextricably linked with the future of the dairy farmers. We have white clover, which is the bulk of the summer honey, because we have dairy farms. If we didn’t have all those hay fields and pastures, then we wouldn’t have the white clover.”
So integral is the clover bloom to local honey that Mraz collaborated for years with UVM Extension agronomist Sid Bosworth. Together they investigated different kinds of clovers to see which would provide the best-continued blossom after cutting. The idea driving the study was to find a mix of seeds that would be mutually beneficial — to cows and bees alike.
Mraz said the project did not receive funding in its most recent round of grant applications, but he hopes that the research will continue.
Mraz also noted that as local dairy farmers heard about the study they were enthusiastic in asking him which clovers and related crops to plant to best benefit the bees.
“The response was really wonderful,” said Mraz. “It seemed to me like the farmers didn’t even know that the bees were having problems and then they thought, ‘Oh, there’s something we can do to help. Let’s do it!’ So that was a very positive thing.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree can be reached at [email protected].

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