Vermont beekeepers rebuke Agency of Agriculture’s assessment that the industry is in good health

Vermont’s bee industry is struggling with significant losses, according to Jeff Battaglini, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. (Michael Pinewski photograph)

Vermont’s bee industry is struggling with significant losses, according to Jeff Battaglini, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. (Michael Pinewski photograph)

Vermont’s bee industry is struggling with significant losses, according to Jeff Battaglini, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. (Michael Pinewski photograph)

Vermont’s bee industry is struggling with significant losses, according to Jeff Battaglini, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. (Michael Pinewski photograph)

By EMMA COTTON

VTDigger

Published: 01-16-2024 2:28 AM

On Sunday, the president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association got a call from a friend, a beekeeper in Pennsylvania, who remarked snarkily, “It looks like Vermont has saved the bees!”

The Pennsylvania apiarist had seen a report and accompanying article from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, that claimed Vermont honeybees have been thriving. It pointed to high colony numbers and reduced reports of disease.

“Colony numbers are at an all-time high in Vermont,” the agency wrote in the report’s conclusion. It noted that beekeepers must contend with threats such as mites but found that “based on the increase in the number of colonies managed, Vermont beekeepers have learned to effectively manage colony stressors in the current environment and successfully maintain a thriving beekeeping industry in the state.”

But Vermont has not, in fact, saved the bees, according to Jeff Battaglini, president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. Rather, he said, the industry is struggling with significant losses that are becoming harder and harder to recover from.

“I had 27% losses last year,” Battaglini said. “I consider, at this point, that a win.”

The agency’s report has created a sore spot for Vermont beekeepers, who say the announcement misrepresents the health of their industry. They worry that it jeopardizes an effort to increase protections for Vermont bees. With that in mind, the association issued a statement in response to the agency’s report to “set the record straight.”

“A number of beekeepers that I work with across the state have been calling me, very upset with this message,” said Samantha Alger, a faculty member at the University of Vermont who researches bee health in Vermont.

At issue is whether the increase of honeybee colonies in the state is a fair indicator of the industry’s overall health. The agency’s report, published in late December, noted a 43% increase in honeybee colonies from 2016 to 2023.

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But those in the beekeeping community say it’s a misleading figure, in part because of how the state counts different types of colonies and that colony loss is a better indicator.

Vermont beekeepers cultivate two types of colonies: migratory and stationary. Stationary colonies stay in Vermont year-round, while beekeepers ship in migratory hives for the summer from the southern United States, and they often travel to other parts of the country for the remainder of the year foraging, Alger said.

The agency collects data in the summer, when the migratory colonies are active in Vermont. But the report doesn’t distinguish between migratory and stationary colonies, which beekeepers say creates a confusing and potentially inflated picture of the state’s total number of colonies.

Steve Dwinell, director of the division at the Agency of Agriculture that published the report, told VTDigger he didn’t understand why beekeepers were advocating for separate data about the two types of colonies.

“They’re still Vermont beekeepers,” he said. “These are Vermont businesses and Vermont beekeepers who take their bees out of state so that they can be foraging and providing services.”

While the bees might originate from the South, some carry Vermont genetics, Dwinell said.

In 2016, Vermont had a total of 9,715 honeybee colonies registered in Vermont, according to data that the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets provided to VTDigger. Of those, about 8,000 colonies were located in Vermont year-round, and some 1,700 were migratory.

In 2023, the number of registered colonies in the state had nearly doubled to 17,145, with most of that increase attributed to migratory colonies, the agency’s data show. It reported a small increase of stationary colonies, up to 9,244, while migratory colonies rose dramatically to 7,901.

The report’s numbers also appear inflated, Alger contended, because beekeepers have been forced to split their colonies — in times of hardship, not success.

Splitting colonies requires time and resources, and it’s often a consequence of loss. But the data don’t tell that story, especially if an apiarist has fully replaced or even increased their number of colonies through splitting.

“Those colonies are not going to be producing honey,” Alger said. “They’re not going to be able to sell these, because all the splits that they make are going to have to make up for the losses that they sustained during the winter in the year before. So they’ve got to make up for all those losses by making these splits.”

Dwinell, with the agency, said that the practice of splitting hives “has been going on for a long time.” Even if the splits are coming at a cost to the beekeepers, “there’s still more colonies,” he said.

In its statement, the Vermont Beekeepers Association said the numbers also appear to have increased because more beekeepers are reporting their colony numbers accurately.

Before 2016, there were “a number of beekeepers in the state that were not registered in the program,” Alger said. “This apparent increase that they’re seeing can also be attributed to the fact that there (were) just existing beekeepers in the state who were not compliant with the current program.”

In response, Dwinell pointed to the number of apiaries in Vermont, which he said has stayed relatively constant — 1,216 in 2016 and 1,213 in 2023, according to agency data.

“So I don’t really buy the argument that, all of a sudden, more people are registering,” he said.

Alger, along with association members, said the best way to measure the health of honeybees and the apiary industry is to look at data that describes colony loss. The association’s statement points to data from the Bee Informed Partnership, which shows annual colony losses by state from surveys.

In the 2020-2021 data collection period, Vermont beekeepers lost an average of 79% of their colonies. In the 2021-2022 period, they lost 65.8% of their colonies, and in the most recent period, they lost 27%.

“If I had 100 cows and 27 died every winter, every year — it’s not very good,” Battaglini said. “The misconception is because we can make these splits, we take our beehives with these colonies, we can make up those losses. Last year, I was just treading by.”

Beekeepers said they want the public to be well-informed about the health of their industry because, for years, they have been trying to protect it. In the Statehouse, they’ve been advocating for reforms to pesticide regulations.

A law enacted in 2022 required the Agency of Agriculture to develop best management practices for seeds coated in a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which are “highly toxic to pollinators,” according to Alger. That process is ongoing.

“If the message is, ‘No, the bees are doing great,’ then people are like, ‘OK, then we’re all set. We don’t need to make any changes,’ ” Alger said.

Meanwhile, Dwinell stood by the agency’s data collection process.

“From 2019 forward to now, we’ve got a 20% increase in the number of colonies during that time frame,” he said. “We thought that was great news.”