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Will Colony Collapse Disorder Affect Vermont’s Agricultural Economy?

Tuesday May 8, 2007

By Larry Johnson

    Vermont honey bees produce 2/3 of a million pounds of honey annually, and make a small but important contribution to the state’s economy; more importantly, however, these hard working little fliers contribute untold millions of dollars to the agricultural economy of this state by pollinating its crops.  Without bees in the world, we would quickly starve.

    So whatever is happening to the bee population across the country is, to say the least, worrisome.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, as many as 25% of the country’s bee population, in 27 states, has disappeared since last summer, and no one has a  definitive answer as to why the bees are leaving their hives and not returning.  

    For several decades, Vermont beekeepers have been fighting a battle for survival on several fronts.  Cheap imports from places like China have set the wholesale price of honey so low that commercial beekeeping has become more and more difficult to sustain.  Disease, caused primarily from a tiny mite that infects the bee and then suppresses its immune system, making it susceptible to viruses, has been a great decimator of hives over the last few decades, but this new, and disturbing factor has alarmed the USDA to the extent that it is allotting $4 1/2 million to study this problem alone.

    Although Vermont has not experienced massive colony collapse problems to date, this past winter has seen significant losses of bees to some of the states 1,600 registered beekeepers.  Kirk Webster, a commercial beekeeper in Bridport, told me that he had lost about 35% of his hives over the winter.  Some of his bees starved, he explained, something he had rarely experienced in the past.  He attributed it to a warm January and to the fact that his bees had used up much of their stored energy when they would normally have been hived up for the winter.

    Kirk explained that there were a number of  theories relating to the Colony Collapse Disorder plaguing many beekeepers throughout the rest of the country.  “I believe it could be a combination of stresses on bees that are causing the problem,” he told me.  The bees are coming under more stress from new pesticides, changing weather patterns and they are also being trucked longer distances for pollination purposes, not allowing the bees to have “cleansing flights.”  All of these things could be contributing to colony collapse, Kirk explained.  There has also been a new strain of fungus discovered in Spain that is devastating hives and it’s possible it has arrived in the U.S.

    Another, somewhat less plausible theory, is that bees are somehow being disoriented because of the increased use of cell phones and their microwave signals.  However, Kirk Webster doesn’t believe that cell phones are causing the problem.  “I know of beekeepers who have hives next to other beekeepers’ hives and one beekeeper will sustain losses and the other won’t.”

    Bees are an integral part of agriculture and food production and whatever is causing them to disappear in such large numbers is problematic indeed, and needs to be put right at whatever cost.


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