Al Avitabile’s fist was covered with bees. They buzzed around his head and picked their way through his hair. Avitabile was nonchalant.
“The inner ear canal is where you don’t want to get stung,” he said. “It just hurts like hell.”
A crowd of about 30 people watched Avitabile, a veteran beekeeper who has been inviting bees to gather on his hand for decades, while hundreds of honeybees, like minuscule torpedoes, whizzed around them. No one seemed concerned if a bee landed on a hand or face.
The people and their accompanying bees were on a grassy lawn on the University of Vermont campus, where more than 700 beekeepers from across the country and hundreds of thousands of bees gathered last week for the Eastern Apicultural Society’s annual conference.
This was the first time Vermont hosted the conference, and the influence of Vermont culture was apparent. This year, the conference featured many “natural” beekeeping sessions and workshops. Bill Mares, the president of the Eastern Apicultural Society and a Vermont resident, said the theme of the conference, “Bees and Beyond,” was intended to bring a whole ecosystem focus to the event.
“We chose the theme ‘Bees and Beyond’ deliberately because we wanted to focus on the broader ways in which bees fit into agriculture,” said Mares. “The meaning of ‘Bees and Beyond’ is it’s not just about the bees, but it’s about how the bees fit into the larger ecology, and by extension, helping beekeepers to think of themselves as more than just focusing on this one insect.”
The conference included a tour of the Intervale and sessions on the role of bees in chocolate, cheese, and coffee production.
Vermont beekeepers at the conference said over and over again that Vermont is a special place to keep bees.
“It’s not just that I’m biased,” said Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture.
It’s that Vermont is friendlier to honeybees, in general, he said. Though the winters are hard, bees are healthier here because of the prevalence of small-scale, organic agriculture—and small-scale, organic apiculture, or beekeeping.
Honeybees everywhere face daunting threats. Pathogens and parasites were hot topics at the conference.
Prior to the 1980s, beekeeping was a fairly low-maintenance affair. But tracheal mites were introduced to the United States in the 1980s, then the Varroa mite in the early 1990s, and now honeybees also succumb to a fungus called Nosema, as well as a number of other diseases. The mites latch onto the bee and suck its haemolymph, which is the insect version of blood—the gooey green stuff that comes out if you squash them.
Many beekeepers, especially large commercial operations, treat parasites with harsh pesticides—just enough to kill the mites, not enough to kill the bees. But many Vermont beekeepers, even the large commercial operations, focus on organic approaches.
Charles Mraz is the owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries, one of the largest and oldest beekeeping operations in the state. Mraz’ grandfather, also named Charles Mraz, founded the apiary that now cares for 1,200 colonies in 30 locations, from Whiting to the Canadian border. Mraz uses formic acid, a naturally occurring substance and what beekeepers call a “soft chemical,” to kill mites.
Marla Spivak, a honeybee researcher at the University of Minnesota, has found that honeybees behave like a highly effective immune system as a colony. They remove, eat, or seal off diseased individuals that they find in their hive.
“The fact that colonies are dying now, in higher numbers than ever, tells me something is really wrong. Because it’s actually really hard to kill a colony,” said Spivak in her talk at the conference.
Because of her research, Spivak believes that bees have the capacity to fight off disease without treatments.
“If all of us stop treating for Nosema right now, I really think the bees would develop resistance to it on their own,” she said.
According to Stephen Parise, the state bee inspector, Kirk Webster, a well-known Vermont honeybee queen breeder, didn’t use chemicals at all when tracheal mites were first discovered in the state in the late 1980s. He lost 95 percent of his bees the first year, but by breeding the survivors, now has a resistant stock.
Author and beekeeper Conrad avoids putting foreign substances in his hives at all, and instead uses bees that are resistant to mites and keeps the colonies clean and small.
“None of those things on their own are enough to typically keep bees healthy and alive … But when you combine them all together, it can be enough that the bees can survive, especially if you’re feeding them well,” said Conrad.
It’s a lot of work, but it pays off in healthier bees, says Conrad. While beekeepers across the country fret over a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Vermont beekeepers sleep more easily.
When a colony goes from healthy to dead in a matter of weeks, and has experienced at least three major stresses, like mites and fungus, beekeepers call it CCD.
Most years, said Conrad, beekeepers across the U.S. lose an average of 30 percent to 35 percent of their hives to CCD.
According to Parise, the state bee inspector, Vermont has never had a case of CCD. Nor does it have severe problems with the other bee diseases.
“I would go so far as to say they’re healthier than other states’ bees,” said Mares.
Parise and Mares say the main reason is that we have only one or two migratory beekeepers.
Parise said migratory beekeepers stack four to six hives on a pallet, cover them with a net, and use forklifts to load them onto flatbed trucks. The bees are then trucked across the country to California every February to pollinate almond flowers. In February, more than half of the honeybees in the United States are in California.
And when they are there, they mingle, spreading disease. Because Vermont beekeepers rarely truck their bees out of state, our bees don’t pick up diseases as often.
“They’re not exposed to the flu clinics of other states,” said Mares. “They get to stay here, get rejuvenated with the stuff they’ve collected, and they get some winter rest.”
In addition to organic beekeeping, Vermont has lots of organic farms, and Conrad asserts that this is good for bees.
“One of the reasons I think it’s better here is because we have small-scale farms,” said Conrad. “Not big industrial farms, which produce a lot of stress on pollinators because it destroys habitat, the nutritional stress when you’ve got a monoculture and there’s only one thing to eat, not a diversity, like you have in nature.” And industrial farms generally use harsh pesticides, which can kill bees.
But a honeybee’s life is not all roses in Vermont. Being a northern state, Vermont will feel the effects of climate change sooner and harder, and this will affect the bees.
“The main thing with climate change is that it’s changing the bloom cycles of the plants,” said Conrad. “And that’s causing nutritional stress on the pollinators.” If flowers bloom early, and then a frost hits, bees “lose that very important early nutrition, coming out of winter, that’s so important for them to build up on.”
The droughts, flooding, and violent storms that are predicted won’t help either, noted Conrad. “All these things are going to affect the bees.”
Champlain Valley Apiaries’ Mraz acknowledges the challenges with a long-term view.
“I hope we can go on for three more generations,” said Mraz. “I hope the fight gets easier.”