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Vermont agency stands by honeybee report despite pushback from beekeepers

There is conflict among Vermont's beekeepers, with some commercial beekeepers saying the industry has never been stronger, while others say a pesticide, neonicotinoids, are killing more bees than ever.
Jackie Meriam
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Courtesy
There is conflict among Vermont's beekeepers, with some commercial beekeepers saying the industry has never been stronger, while others say a pesticide, neonicotinoids, are killing more bees than ever.

The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets put out a report recently that said Vermont’s honeybee population was healthy and at its highest numbers ever recorded.

But across the state, beekeepers are telling a different story — and they say their bees are in crisis.

A green and purple graphic with a radio tower and the words "Community Inspired"
Laura Nakasaka
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Vermont Public
We heard from a lot of you about bees. This story was inspired by members of our audience who reached out to inform our reporting. Thank you to everyone who shared questions for being a part of our journalism. If you have an idea, tip or question for a reporter, you can reach our newsroom here.

At the root of the conflict is a powerful class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. Some beekeepers want neonics out of Vermont, while the state says farmers should be allowed to use them.

The agency’s report last month was an overview of how Vermont's honeybee industry was doing. It looked at a bunch of different issues, like the number of bees in the state, the number of beekeepers who are registered with the agency, and trends for a few different parasites and diseases that affect bees.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont lawmakers want to phase out neonic insecticides to help pollinators

And the bottom line — from the perspective of Pollinator Health Specialist Brooke Decker, with the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Market — is that honeybees are thriving in Vermont.

“We put together the data that we had from the past few years and are showing an increase in the number of colonies,” Decker says. “And then we surveyed beekeepers, and according to our surveys, we had about 24% to 28% winter loss. So to me this celebrates that we have a beekeeping community that’s thriving. The numbers are increasing.”

But Ross Conrad, who owns Dancing Bee Gardens and has been raising honeybees in Addison County for more than 30 years, says the state’s report was inaccurate and misleading.

“It’s really frustrating and I gotta tell you, you have a lot of beekeepers that are not happy with the Vermont Department of Agriculture,” Conrad says. “They really stirred up an angry swarm of beekeepers with their ridiculous claims of a healthy, robust beekeeping industry in Vermont.”

Conrad says Vermont beekeepers have been seeing a really troubling trend of colony loss, and it's increasing every year.

"You have a lot of beekeepers that are not happy with the Vermont Department of Agriculture. They really stirred up an angry swarm of beekeepers with their ridiculous claims of a healthy, robust beekeeping industry in Vermont.”
Ross Conrad, Dancing Bee Gardens

Conrad also says modern pesticides are more targeted and more lethal, and these chemicals are being picked up by the bees as they’re flying around landing on flowers to collect nectar.

He says bees are like canaries in the coal mine. They’re dying, and Conrad says these bee deaths should be a warning for humans — and all living things — that these toxic agricultural chemicals are affecting the environment.

After the state report came out, the Vermont Beekeepers Association issued a press release calling the report misleading, and saying the state data undermines the industry’s efforts to protect bees.

The beekeepers say that while the state numbers might be accurate, they don’t really paint a clear picture. They say that because the state counts bees in the summer — when the insects are at their healthiest — and beekeepers may lose a lot of bees in the winter, a point-in-time count doesn't give a fair account of what's really going on.

But the state says it does take colony loss into account, and the report found that colony loss has been steady.

Ross Conrad works on his bee colonies in Addison County. Conrad says colony loss has been increasing as more neonicotinoids have been used in Vermont.
Ross Conrad
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Courtesy
Ross Conrad works on his bee colonies in Addison County. Conrad says colony loss has been increasing as more neonicotinoids have been used in Vermont.

The beekeepers also say the state's numbers are wrong because of commercial operations that keep bees here in the summer, then take them to California or down south to pollinate almond trees and blueberries.

The state says travelers have always been a part of the commercial bee industry, and the Agency of Agriculture says the traveling commercial companies are actually evidence of a robust industry.

According to the beekeepers, the state has been cracking down on registration which is skewing the numbers, showing there are more colonies registered, even if they are seeing all this loss.

But again, the state says it's just not true, and the number of registered beekeepers has remained steady. But because they are doing so well, the state says, the same number of beekeepers are successfully raising more bees.

“Beekeepers tend to want to point the finger and blame one thing, and I don't think that's possible with the honeybees because there are so many variables that happen within the hive. And a lot of it, a lot of it, is the beekeeper. I don't think we can blame the corn on the bees collapsing."
Jackie Merriam, West Meadow Apiary

Samantha Alger, a University of Vermont research assistant professor who runs the Vermont Bee Lab at UVM, says her research shows that neonicotinoids are affecting bee health in Vermont. She also took issue with the state report.

“So I think the numbers are misleading, and misleading the public into thinking that the pollinators and the bees are doing great. And we know that that has not been the case for decades now,” Alger says. “And so, from the beekeeping industry standpoint, it might draw attention away from a place where attention is needed right now to help the beekeepers and to help the bee population.”

But a state panel that was put together to look at how neonicotinoids might be affecting bees and other pollinators recently put out its own report.

The Agricultural Innovation Board found that the neonics are toxic to insects — and they say they understand that the chemicals can affect the environment, but at this time, they’re recommending more research and education.

Jackie Merriam, who owns West Meadow Apiary, near Randolph, says she has a thriving business that is not being affected by neonicotinoids.

Jackie Merriam, right, stands with her son, Aidan, in front of some of their hives in Georgia. Merriam takes her bees down south to pollinate blueberry bushes and says the honeybee industry is strong in Vermont.
Jackie Merriam
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Courtesy
Jackie Merriam, right, stands with her son, Aidan, in front of some of their hives in Georgia. Merriam takes her bees down south to pollinate blueberry bushes, and says the honeybee industry is strong in Vermont.

Merriam takes her bees down south over the winter to pollinate blueberry bushes, and she says traveling bee colonies are an important way for her to keep a healthy agricultural business going.

“Beekeepers tend to want to point the finger and blame one thing, and I don't think that's possible with the honeybees because there are so many variables that happen within the hive,” Merriam says. “And a lot of it, a lot of it, is the beekeeper. I don't think we can blame the corn on the bees collapsing. I just don't think we can.”

But still, there is support in the legislature to get rid of neonics in Vermont. A bill was introduced in the House this year that would phase out the pesticides. And, New York just passed a law that phases out neonics in that state. Advocates say with a big state like New York phasing out the pesticides, it will create more of a market for the pesticide-free corn, which Vermont can take advantage of.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or contact reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman:

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.