A Follow-up to the Catch the Buzz post on January 30, 2024:
A response from Ross Conrad, a regular contributor to Bee Culture:
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 honey bee population is “healthy and robust.” They point to statistics that indicate a 43% percent increase in managed honey bee hives since 2016. Unfortunately, this interpretation of the data is completely inaccurate.
Make no mistake, honey bees 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 fee. 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 honey bee 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 numberof colonies on file with the state is probably more accurate than ever before.
Unfortunately, comparing the year 2016 when the states’ reported honey bee colony numbers were artificially low, with today’s numbers that are not only more accurate but also reflect the peak honey bee colony population of the season, creates a false representation of how managed bees in Vermont are fairing.
Another problem is that total colony numbers at the peak of the season are not an accurate proxy for the health of Vermont’s honey bee 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 harm 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.
Vermont Beekeepers also released a statement (previously published in Catch the Buzz):
The Vermont Beekeepers Association Board of Directors released the following:
With decades of effort toward raising public awareness on the plight of pollinators, we the beekeepers of Vermont are deeply concerned about recent communications from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets (VAAFM), and we would like to set the record straight.
The VAAFM’s claim of record honey bee numbers in Vermont as evidence of a “healthy and robust beekeeping industry” is not only misleading but serves to undermine our industry and ongoing efforts in Vermont to protect managed and native bees, both of whom are in great peril. Contrary to VAAFM’s recent communications, the beekeeping and scientific community agree that the total number of honey bee colonies cannot be used to measure bee health (a honey bee colony is a single family of bees housed in a hive.)
A more accurate estimate of our state honey bee health is annual colony loss. According to VAAFM’s own statistics, Vermont beekeepers have lost at least 25% of their bees during the winter months for the last three years. The Bee Informed Partnership, a national organization that tracks U.S. honey bee colony losses, reports combined summer and winter colony losses for Vermonters much higher at 35-85% each year for the last four years. Vermont beekeepers have maintained colony numbers by becoming bee-replacers instead of beekeepers. When VAAFM takes their tally of Vermont hives each July, beekeepers have already created new colonies to replace their losses. However, this is a very costly and laborious process – one that is not indicative of a “healthy and robust” beekeeping industry.
Not only is colony count the wrong measure of our industry’s health, the numbers themselves are misleading. Non-beekeepers are largely unaware that thousands of Vermont honey bee colonies counted by VAAFM are propagated in the south, trucked to Vermont in early summer, and then moved south again before winter. These imported colonies more than double the Vermont colony count for a short period of time each year.
The apparent increase in colony numbers from 2016-2023 was largely driven by beekeepers registering their pre-existing colonies thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Vermont Beekeepers Association and the VAAFM. The increase in colony numbers during the period presented by the VAAFM represents both a growth in program participation and an increasingly accurate state database.
Across our entire beekeeping industry, annual colony losses are too high and unsustainable. All Vermont beekeepers, including migratory beekeepers, struggle with a high degree of annual colony losses due to pests, pathogens, environmental impacts, and pesticide use. As we continue to confront these challenges, it is disheartening to find that our state agricultural agency has used inaccurate numbers and oversimplification of a complex situation to suggest that bees are flourishing in our state. These inaccuracies undermine the enormous efforts of Vermont beekeepers and the urgency of addressing the very real threats to pollinator health here in Vermont.