North America is home to 4,000 bee species, but only four species of bee are cultivated worldwide for their honey, and among those four, the main species of bees kept by beekeepers is the European honey bee, Apis mellifera.
The bees, as the 2016 study Modeling the Status, Trends, and Impacts of Wild Bee Abundance in the United States shows, are not in great shape. The study conducted and led by Taylor Ricketts, professor of environment and natural resources at the University of Vermont and director of the Gund Institute for Environment, reveals that bee populations have declined about 23 percent across the nation from 2008 to 2013.
Vermont beekeepers are also seeing losses in their honey bees. According to the preliminary results of the Honey Bee Colony Losses 2018–2019 report by the Honey Bee Informed Partnership, beekeepers have lost 37.7 percent of managed bee colonies nationally from October 2018 to April 2019.
Ross Conrad, writer and beekeeper of Dancing Bee Gardens, sees similar trends in Vermont: “The average losses of bees have been 30, 40, and 50 percent every year for about a decade now throughout the country,” he notes, “and in Vermont it’s been as high as that, too.”
As a result, beekeepers have learned to become good at splitting the surviving hives to make up for the losses, according to Conrad: “A lot of beekeepers these days are losing most of their bees, and the next year they split all their bees, make new queens, and make new hives to make up for the ones that died.”
Wild and domestic bees have been struggling against many challenges, particularly pesticides. Systemic pesticides, especially, are a real threat. While some pesticides sit on the surface of the plant, systemic ones—especially neonicotinoids—are absorbed by the plant and transported to all of its tissues, making the plant effectively toxic to
bees for the rest of its life cycle. If the pesticide level isn’t strong enough to kill the bees outright, it impacts specific neural pathways, damaging their ability to process information and forage for nectar.
According to the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, formed in 2009 by a group of European scientists, “These systemic insecticides have become the most widely used group of insecticides globally, with a market share now estimated at around 40 percent of the world market.” A few examples of brands that sell neonicotinoid pesticides used on crops are Tristar, Aloft, Clutch, Transect, Advantage, Mallet, Capstar, Platinum, Flagship, Optigard, and Agri-flex.
This problem has not fallen on deaf ears in Vermont. Bill H.205 was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on May 28 and limits the use of neonicotinoid pesticides by directing the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to register any neonicotinoid pesticide as a “restricted use pesticide.” This means neonicotinoids are now restricted to licensed applicators. That said, the bill exempts seeds alreadytreated with neonicotinoids.
Conrad worries that the agricultural use of pesticides is too high and that not enough farmers are being educated in methods of farming that don’t rely heavily on pesticides. If farmers and gardeners do have to resort to pesticides, Conrad stresses that there are methods and times of day that are safer for our pollen-collecting friends. “If they have to be used…don’t use them when bees are visiting the plant you are treating and it’s in bloom. Spray when it’s cold or rainy out, or at night.”
Another view of the instability of Vermont’s bee population was revealed this summer in a study conducted by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE). It discovered 10 new species in Vermont, which, although it initially seems exciting, it is revealing more serious problems, according to Conrad. “Normally, in a stable ecosystem, we don’t have such big changes. To me, it’s evidence that the ecosystem has become destabilized because there’s so much change happening.”
This is underscored by a December study conducted by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the Gund Institute that found four of 17 of Vermont’s bumblebee species have disappeared in the past 100 years.
Ironically, this human-caused destabilization of the ecosystem has actually made bees more reliant on humans to survive. When considering a reduction in areas in which bees can forage, the increase in new diseases and parasites, and the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids, Conrad worries that bees’ ability to live relatively independently may soon be something of the past.
“It’s almost getting to the point where [bees] are like chickens,” Conrad reflected, “It’s hard for them to survive without human interventions. It’s extremely sad, but that seems to be the direction things are going.”