Local Food & Farm Guide: Vermont’s abuzz with pollinators

ANDREW MUNKRES OF Lemon Fair Honey Works in Cornwall inspects hives in preparation for winter. The winter months are the most stressful time for honeybees in Vermont. Photo by Oliver Parini

June 21-27 is national pollinator week and it could not arrive too soon. Vermont’s honeybee population and native pollinator populations are challenged.

According to researchers, many native pollinators are in decline, or are apparently no longer present in the state. Meanwhile, our state’s annual managed honeybee colony losses have ranged from 30-40% for over a decade although losses are not consistent in any area of the state or within any specific beekeeping operation. While Vermont’s bees face myriad issues, the current unsustainable level of yearly colony losses began about 15 years ago, right around the time that systemic neonicotinoid pesticides that express themselves in all parts of the plant became used predominantly throughout Vermont and the rest of the country.

Historically, pesticides have always been a problem for bees and beekeepers, but pesticide kills tended to be isolated, avoidable by applying pesticides when flowers were not present or when bees were not foraging and these older pesticides were not systemic and did not show up in all parts of the plant. However, pesticides are not the only challenge facing the state’s bees. Vermont beekeepers regularly experienced average yearly losses of 10-20% prior to neonicotinoid’s popularity.

Other challenges to the state’s beekeepers include changing agricultural practices that replace fields of clover and alfalfa with corn and soybeans, and developments that substitute meadows for buildings and parking lots resulting in loss of foraging areas for the state’s pollinators. Additionally, our global economy regularly moves exotic pests, invasive species, and diseases around the world, often unwittingly creating additional stresses for pollinators.  Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions have destabilized the climate increasing extreme weather events, creating wide temperature swings often within relatively short periods of time, shifting the seasonal bloom times of flowering plants and reducing the protein content of the pollen pollinators rely on for proper nutrition.

The root cause of all these issues is money. In our economic system, we generally don’t get what is best for society, we get what people can make money doing. Businesses and corporations that deal with pesticides, toxic chemicals and fossil fuels have a tendency to put profits above the health and well-being of living organisms, ecosystems and even people. In fact, if they are publicly traded they are required by law to base their decisions on what will provide the largest return to their investors, not what is best for the health and well being of society.

The honeybee is our canary in the cornfield, and we all can play a role in reversing the decline of our magnificent pollinators. One way is by planting pollinator-friendly plants. To ensure that all of Vermont’s pollinators may benefit, plant as wide a variety of flowering plants as possible so that there is something in bloom all season long from spring to autumn. Also it is important to include a diversity of flower colors, shapes, and sizes throughout the season. Be sure to create plantings in large blocks about four feet square. A pollinator typically must expend a lot of energy to arrive at a location where they can gather nectar and pollen. A few flowers here and there may look nice to you, but if a pollinator keeps burning more calories to get to foraging locations then they are able to gather from the blossoms there, they will eventually starve. It is only us humans that can burn more calories of energy than we harvest in food calories and we’ve gotten away with it due to the relatively inexpensive and abundant fossil fuels we’ve had access to — a situation that we can no longer count on.

Even if you don’t have space to plant pollinator-friendly plants, you can help pollinators by supporting your local beekeepers.  You can also help to change the world with your vote: both in the voting booth and with your wallet. For example, if you want a world in which pollinators like bees, bats, and butterflies are increasing and thriving rather than struggling every year, then we need to stop spreading toxic chemicals around the landscape. Use natural and organic methods of keeping pests out of your garden. And resist spending money on things produced by others who use pesticides. Instead support farmers that use the least amount of pesticides possible to produce their crops such as organic farmers. Spend your money at businesses that are making a conscious effort to reduce their impact on the environment.

You can personally do your part by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, investing in renewable energy sources and working to reduce your fossil fuel use on a daily basis.

Our pollinators are struggling not because of any one specific action, but by the cumulative impacts of billions of the small amounts of harm people perform every day. One person burning gasoline in an internal combustion engine is insignificant, but when billions of us are doing so it becomes a force of geologic proportions.

By the same token, solving our most pressing environmental and climate issues is not going to involve a single government or societal act, but the cumulative heroic efforts of billions of us all doing not just the least amount of harm possible, but by doing good.

Do good. The pollinators will thank you.

Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury is co-author of “Land of Milk and Honey: A history of beekeeping in Vermont.”

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