Letter to the editor: Report on bees missed the mark

Recent media announcements by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets (VAAFM) suggest that due to the great work the agency is doing, Vermont’s managed honeybee population is “healthy and robust.” They point to statistics that indicate a 43% percent increase in managed honeybee hives since 2016. Unfortunately, this interpretation of the data is completely inaccurate.

Make no mistake, honeybees and beekeepers in Vermont are struggling. Annual losses of 30-50% are common and almost every beekeeper in the state has to work hard every year replacing yearly colony losses simply to stay in business and try to keep their hive numbers steady from season to season.

Where did the VAAFM go wrong? In 2015 the Vermont State legislature passed a law (6 V.S.A. §§ 3022 & 3023) that requires all beekeepers in the state to register with the VAAFM. For the first time, this law also required beekeepers who registered to pay a $10 annual registration fee for each apiary location in the state. It turned out that many Vermont beekeepers were not interested in paying registration fees. As a result, in 2016 ,the first year that the new law was enacted, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of bee hives registered in Vermont.

This new apiary law also changed the timing requirements so bees are now registered during the month of June. Previously, beekeepers could register their colonies anytime during the year. This is a critical distinction since colony numbers in apiaries fluctuate widely during the year from an annual low during the first few months of the year to the peak of the season around July 1. Vermont’s honeybee numbers then decline drastically in autumn when many of the state’s largest bee operations move thousands of hives south to states like Florida and North Carolina for the winter. 

The legislature was smart enough to add some teeth to this new law and included fines for those that fail to register their hives annually with the state. Now the state can go after these beekeeping scofflaws that fail to register, and today the number of colonies on file with the state is probably more accurate than ever before.

Unfortunately, comparing the year 2016 when the states’ reported honeybee colony numbers were artificially low, with today’s numbers that are not only more accurate but also reflect the peak honeybee colony population of the season, creates a false representation of how managed bees in Vermont are faring.  

Another problem is that total colony numbers at the peak of the season are not an accurate proxy for the health of Vermont’s honeybee industry. By VAAFM accounting if a beekeeper with 1,000 hives loses 500 over the course of the winter, and splits all the surviving hives in the spring to create 500 new colonies to replace the losses, and reports having 1,000 hives again in the new year, this is a “healthy and robust” beekeeping industry. 

VAAFM should be focusing on the huge losses Vermont beekeepers suffer annually, which beekeepers know is tied to the hundreds of tons of toxic pesticides spread across the Vermont landscape year after year. According to testing done by the Vermont Bee Lab at UVM, pesticides are regularly showing up in bee hives at levels known to be acutely lethal to bees. The fact that many of these pesticides are also known to contain PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” adds yet more urgency. VAAFM needs to stop patting itself on the back and start getting serious about addressing an environmental crisis that they are playing an active role in creating.

Ross Conrad 

Vermont Pesticide and Poison Action Network (VT PAPAN)

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