Bees are in the news again, unfortunately.
Beeinformed.org, in collaboration with Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reporting troubling statistics about seasonal and annual bee-colony losses. Over the past five years, these losses — 35 percent in 2010, 29 percent in 2011, 45 percent in 2012, 34 percent in 2013, and now 42 percent in 2014 – have been more than twice the “acceptable level.”
Despite these well-documented numbers, a recent op-ed on NationalReview.com claims, “Sorry to be a buzzkill, but honeybee colonies are at a 20-year high.” Apparently, NR reasons, beekeepers are getting better at repairing hive damage and fending off colony collapse.
Have environmentalists been overreacting? Is there a disinformation campaign funded by the agrochemical industry? Or are the bees dying off, and what is to blame?
I decided to ask a couple of Vineyard beekeepers about the state of their hives.
Tim Colon maintains about 100 hives in multiple locations across the Island. He spends about 40 hours a week tending beehives in every town but Aquinnah. He says about 70 percent of them are honey-producing. Mr. Colon’s Island Bee Co. is the largest honeybee-farming operation locally.
Another local beekeeper, Monica Miller of Skye Botanicals, tends about 20 hives. She thinks there may be as many as 30 or more mostly hobbyist beekeepers. “Check out all the local honey submissions at the Agricultural Fair. Of course, Andy Boass would usually win the top prize.”
Local hive loss
Monica Miller reports losing almost a quarter of her hives this past winter. Tim Colon says his winter hive loss is 20 to 35 percent, consistent with the Massachusetts average. In New Hampshire, bee-colony losses exceed 50 percent, and in Illinois more than 60 percent. And these reported losses may be understated, according to Mr. Colon: “Nobody wants to admit they are losing their bees.”
I asked Mr. Colon and Ms. Miller whether bee losses and the broader problem of colony collapse disorder were, in their opinions, due to neonicotinoids, also known as neonics, the dangerous pesticides banned in 2013 by the European Union and other countries.
“I’ve only experienced one big chemical kill on the Vineyard,” said Mr. Colon. “It was several years ago. Found all the bees lying dead on the ground. They must have fed on water with chemicals in it.” Ms. Miller experienced a similar bee kill, and suspects that pesticides washed into standing water by the rain were responsible. Mr. Colon and Ms. Miller agreed that today’s agricultural practices are largely to blame, both for stressing the bees and for overloading their immune systems with toxic chemicals like the neonics. Ms. Miller feels strongly that pesticides are largely to blame.
Neonics are a very big business. The top three producers, Bayer CropScience (Imidacloprid), Syngenta (Thiamethoxam), and Sumitomo Chemical (Clothianidin), generate over $2 billion revenue annually from neonics. The latest alternative to neonics from Bayer, flupyradifurone, “flupy” for short, is being marketed as bee-safe because, based on early trials, it kills bees so quickly they die before they can return to the hive and contaminate the colony.
Acknowledging that honeybees pollinate a third of what we eat and add over $15 billion in value to our crops, President Barack Obama created a federal task force last year to address the problem. Last month his taskforce produced a weighty report on its “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators,” with a bottom-line goal to reduce winter colony losses to 15 percent nationwide within 10 years.
Today’s beekeepers have become adept at rebuilding their lost colonies. However, the taskforce recommendations are aiming primarily at prevention, rather than relying entirely on repair.
Anything but romantic
Beekeeping, according to Tim Colon, is hard work and anything but romantic, though many hobbyists get started because they think it will be an idyllic pastime. What’s the worst part about beekeeping? Not getting stung. Mr. Colon says it’s the ticks. You have to leave your clothes outside the house, because they are crawling with the little Lyme-infested parasites. And they get into your car or truck with you, and you find them crawling up your arm or leg as you’re driving to the grocery store or to your son’s baseball game.
The Vineyard buzz
Mr. Colon’s Island Bee Co. sells the honey that his bees produce at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market and at his home. Mr. Colon also sells honey from other Massachusetts producers at the local grocery stores. “The honey we sell in stores is the same quality as ours, or as close as we can get. My wife Tricia spends a lot of time meeting with other beekeepers, searching out honey that meets our high level of quality. Always raw and unfiltered, and never heated.”
Ms. Miller, a longtime perfumer-flavorist, specializes in boutique honeys and, like Mr. Colon, sells both local and off-Island honeys, although both are clearly marked. “If it’s Island honey, the town it’s from is on the label,” she says. Ms. Miller markets her honeys at Alley’s, Bad Martha’s, Cronig’s, Healthy Additions, Juliska, LeRoux, Stop and Shop, and Vineyard Grocer. Among Ms. Miller’s flavored honeys are chai, chocolate, cinnamon, lavender, lemon ginger, pink grapefruit, and rose petal. Ms. Miller’s chocolate honey is made by the bees themselves, feeding on cacao that she places near the hives.
Healthy or just delicious?
One tablespoon of honey contains 64 calories, as well as 17.3 grams of carbohydrates — nearly all of them from sugar — and small amounts of iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, niacin, and vitamin B-6. Raw honey also contains a variety of antioxidants from the local pollen.
Much of the honey sold in supermarkets is pasteurized and filtered to improve shelf life. Raw honey will harden into crystals, although it’s easy enough to liquefy by placing the honey jar in a warm pan of water. That’s the kind of honey that Tim Colon and Monica Miller sell. Raw, unpasteurized, unfiltered honey.
Many people swear by raw honey’s antibacterial and healing properties. Some claim it is the best remedy for a cough when mixed with hot water and lemon and maybe a little whiskey. However, infants and young children should never consume raw honey: According to Livestrong.com, raw honey contains a number of microorganisms, including the bacteria clostridium, which can cause infant botulism in very small children.
Bottom line, however, we need the bees
Whenever you eat an almond, it’s likely that bees were responsible for pollinating that almond tree. And not just almonds. Apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries, cucumbers, grapefruit, lemons, oranges, strawberries — and even pumpkins — all owe their fruiting to the honeybees. Think about that. No apple pie, no guacamole, no citrus fruits, no summer strawberry shortcake. And where would be Halloween and Thanksgiving be without the bees?
Restoring sustainability to the nation’s bee colonies will be a long-term effort, and may require the average family to use fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers in their homes and gardens. Nothing worth having is entirely free. Ms. Miller believes it would be helpful for Island bees if we could plant and grow our crops entirely without toxic chemicals. “It’s important to nurture our Island ecology as much as we possibly can.”
Michael G. West, a year-round Island resident, also writes fiction. His novels include Dutch Reckoning and Misfit Blues (Tommy Shakespear Mystery series) and XOC — The White Shark Murders and BUZZD — The Bee Kill Conspiracy (Martha’s Vineyard EcoThrillers), all available in the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.