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Vermont honey bee count reaches historic high in 2023

A photo of many bees on honeycomb.
Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets
/
Courtesy
Vermont beekeepers were able to successfully manage various parasites and diseases throughout the year to keep the number of bee colonies at its highest level recorded.

The number of honey bee colonies in Vermont reached an all-time high in 2023, according to the most recent data from the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

The agency regulates the honey bee industry, and all beekeepers, including commercial and backyard apiaries, must register with the state.

There were 17,145 colonies registered in 2023, which was a 43% increase since 2016, and represents the largest number of colonies ever registered with the state.

“To me, those numbers say that the beekeeping industry is really healthy and robust,” said Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Pollinator Health Specialist Brooke Decker said the “Across the Fence" video program, which is co-produced by the University of Vermont Extension and WCAX. “Our beekeepers are working hard to maintain healthy colonies and putting in the hard work to have viable businesses.”

Decker says the agency has been working closely with beekeepers to manage dangerous parasites and diseases which are among the greatest threats to the population.

American foulbrood, for instance, is an extremely contagious disease, and there were 49 cases reported in 2020.

In 2023, the number of cases dropped to zero, according to the agency’s report.

Still Vermont honey bees continue to be threatened by Varroa mites, which the agency calls a major consideration for the state’s apiaries.

Varroa mites were the single largest threat to honey bees, with more than 120 beekeepers reporting an infestation to the agency in 2023.

Varroa mites are major cause of winter colony loss, along with weather, starvation, and bears.

Winter colony loss was up slightly in 2022, inching up from 25% in 2021 to almost 29% in 2022.

"To me those numbers say that the beekeeping industry is really healthy and robust. Our beekeepers are working hard to maintain healthy colonies and putting in the hard work to have viable businesses."
Brooke Decker, Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets

Between 2016 and 2023 the number of apiaries has remained relatively constant, with between 1,213 and 1,263 registered with the state.

And even though the number of colonies is up, which indicates an increase in the number of colonies at each site, the report says the average apiary in Vermont is still a small, backyard operation.

About 90% of the individual beekeepers registered with the state have 20 colonies or less, while a little more than 3% of the beekeepers have what is considered a commercial operation with 100 colonies or more.

Beekeepers, scientists and lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in agriculture, and in 2021 the Legislature established the Vermont Agricultural Innovation Board to study how policymakers can more effectively manage pesticide use.

The Vermont Agricultural Innovation Board is expected to publish an updated report on neonicotinoid pesticides in time for the upcoming legislative session.

The good news about the Vermont honey bee population comes as both honey bees and native bees across the country face serious threats from habitat loss, parasites, and climate change.

Across the U.S., beekeepers lost 48.2 % of their managed colonies, according to the national organization Bee Informed, which was the second highest loss rate on record.

And the USDA Forest Service reports that some wild bee populations have dropped by more than 80%, though that agency says there have been very few nationwide studies done on pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman:

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Corrected: December 27, 2023 at 4:57 PM EST
This story has been updated to clarify that the "Across the Fence" television program is co-produced by the University of Vermont Extension and WCAX, not the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.