Life is sweet for Vermont's pollinators, but their party days may be numbered
About half a mile down the road from Shelburne Orchards, in a clearing bordered by sumacs and white birches, James Gabriel and Ian Hagan hold their breath. It's a sleepy Wednesday afternoon in late April, and these beekeepers have driven up from Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury for a routine inspection of 36 colonies. A few yards off, maple trees - like the good pollen givers they are - prepare to bud.
But despite the postcard charm of today's outing, something is rotten in the world of bees, and no one knows why. That's putting it mildly. Agricultural specialists from coast to coast have been worrying since the early 1990s about a spiteful little bee parasite called the Varroa mite. But this year, they're totally freaked out over a mysterious blight called "Colony Collapse Disorder." The virus - CCD for short - has killed about a quarter of America's honeybee population since 2006; its potential effect on the world's food supply could be catastrophic.
"People can live without honey, but they can't live without bees," Gabriel asserts, as he unloads some stray gear from his truck. Approxi-mately three-quarters of the world's flowering plants require pollinators to assist with their plant mojo. This includes legumes, nuts, veggies and fruit. Bees are responsible for safeguarding the sex lives of such major cash crops in Vermont as apples, blueberries and pumpkins.
The art of beekeeping is about as old a practice as anyone can remember. "They stored honey in Egyptian tombs for 3000 years, and it was still good," Gabriel points out, as he touches a match to a cluster of dried grass - the smoker he'll use to fend off stings while peeking into the hives. Gabriel, 45, is something of a throwback, himself: Tall and regal, with a tucked-in white shirt, sandy hair and three-days' beard, he resembles the English missionary in low-budget Technicolor film adaptations of E.M. Forster novels. His assistant, on the other hand, is straight off the set of a Spike Lee "Joint": Hagan, 21, sports a metal chain, a black baseball cap and an urban swagger.
In a choreographed one-two routine, this odd couple begins to pry open the bee boxes, or "supers." As Gabriel fans smoke into the colonies, Hagan pulls out frames full of honeycombs. The frames themselves are low-tech, science-fair-ish exoskeletons - and they're crawling with surrealist armies of restless, twittering bees. All buzzing gets corralled and distorted by the honeycombs' inner chambers, so that you might think the humming was coming from a gang of congested Gregorian monks. Hagan turns each comb over to inspect larvae for signs of disease. "Watch out!" Gabriel warns him at one point. "This one's jumpy!"
Jumpy is good for business. According to Gabriel, 27 of the 36 colonies in this field have survived the winter, with no sign of CCD. That's not bad, considering that some migratory beekeepers in other states have reported losses of as much as 90 percent. "Twenty-five percent loss?" Gabriel asks rhetorically. "I'll take it."
To a layman's eye, bees may look like simpletons. But these pea-sized insects enact a "drama on a small scale," Gabriel says. In every colony, he explains, worker bees (all of them women - go figure) select one sterile female egg for queenhood. They feed this proto-ruler "royal jelly" to soup up her sex organs - reproductive apparati Gabriel likens to a "rather complicated set of plumbing." Once mature, he continues, "The virgin queen comes forth" by flying out of the hive. A horde of male suitors, or "drones," buzzes after her in lusty pursuit. Finally, between six and 25 of the most macho dudes inseminate the queen with up to 8 million sperm, all in the midst of a "singles' bar" frenzy.
"It's like Greek drama, man," Gabriel suggests. But for all its dramatic pretensions, the bee mating process seems to have more in common with Tony Soprano than with, say, Sophocles. The self-same ritual, after all, is also fraught with HBO-caliber domestic quibbling, not to mention gratuitous violence. Hagan suggests, for example, that drones are lazy, at least compared to the workers; he likens their honey supply to a "fridge." Gabriel compares a colony full of drones to "a house full of guys that don't work." And the lucky ones who score with Queenie? Their penises are ripped off in the act of lovemaking. Ouch.
But what about the threat of CCD? Though the virus has been reported in about half of American states since 2006, Vermont honey-makers appear to be immune - at least for now. How come? One factor in Vermont's favor may be farming practices. In recent months, some scientists have proposed that the disorder stems from use of "neonicotinoids" - a type of pesticide commonly sprayed on crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton. Area agriculturists don't use it.
Kirk Webster of Middlebury, considered by area buzz-o-philes one of the most innovative bee breeders in New England, if not the world, takes it a step further. In an age of ubiquitous pesticides, the bearded bee mystic raises nucleus colonies and queens chemical-free. "Kirk deserves a place in the hall of fame for beekeeping," Gabriel says.
Others theorize that CCD is brought on by fatigue and stress: Since the advent of the Interstate, more and more beekeepers have begun trucking their colonies across the country, a practice that weakens the bees' resistance to viruses. But most of Vermont's honey-makers are homebodies. Gabriel's boss, Bill Mraz, is one of the biggest honey czars around - Champlain Valley Apiaries maintains 1300 of a statewide 9500 colonies. But on a national scale, that's small potatoes. In places like California and Florida, according to Gabriel, it's not uncommon for beekeepers to manage 20,000 or 30,000 colonies.
State apiculturist Steve Parise confirms that out of 10 major commercial keepers statewide, only two import their bees from out of state. The practice may be shortsighted, but Gabriel suggests it's "more a statement on the piss-poor price of honey" than anything else. Almond growers in California, he notes, pay $150 per colony for pollinator bees. By contrast, Shelburne Orchards pays $35.
Like Vermont's dairy industry, beekeeping has become increasingly less profitable in recent decades, especially for small commercial producers who don't benefit from economies of scale. Mike Palmer, president of the Vermont Beekeepers' Association, bemoans the fact that wholesale bee prices have increased sevenfold since the mid-1970s, while the retail value of honey hasn't even doubled.
A recent British study suggests - don't laugh - that cellphones are to blame for the pollinator crisis. Apparently, cellie radiation could be interfering with bee navigation faculties.
Gabriel says he's "leaning" toward the neonicotinoid theory. "But not having all the evidence, I can't say," he cautions. And cellphones? "If it's something like cellphones, we're done," he admits with a laugh. "If someone told me cellphones had to go, I'd say, 'Right on!' But we're not gonna stop cellphones, for better or worse."
For all Vermonters' best efforts to prevent it, CCD may very well infiltrate the state anyway. Even Kirk Webster admits that the disorder could easily show up here as early as next year. If CCD isn't trucked in by Vermont's two traveling beesters, it could hitch a ride over with migratory colonies from New York, New Hampshire or Canada. "In Vermont, people are little more progressive," Gabriel comments, emphasizing that Vermont beekeepers tend to keep it local and organic whenever possible. But he adds wryly, "You can't keep the nation out."
Costs and biology aside, this time-tested practice may be petering out - an average American beekeeper is 55. The work isn't always sweet: Gabriel and Hagan say they've suffered as many as 40 stings in a single onslaught. And when apple bloom starts at Shelburne Orchards next month, they'll have to load these bees onto their pickup truck at 3 a.m.
Still, the job isn't a chore by any stretch. As this afternoon winds down, it's clear from the way the men interact with their colonies that they're following a higher calling. During a break in the action, Gabriel observes, "We get a bees-eye view . . . They allow us to connect with the natural world in a way that most people wouldn't be able to." Later, when a bee flies into his glasses, he swats it away nonchalantly.
After all the colonies have been inspected, Gabriel and Hagan bundle up extra crates with a length of twine. They'll re-use abandoned honeycombs as breeding sites for fresh colonies, Hagan explains. Overhead, sunshine dips into Lake Champlain, and the birches sparkle. "The bees are a metaphor for everything that goes on around you," Gabriel reflects. "When the bees are sick, the world is sick."
The world gets hungry, too. The average American consumes about 19 pounds of apples every year - thanks largely to bees. So if bees dropped the ball in Vermont? Shepherd's pie for the Fourth of July. It's no surprise that at Champlain Valley bees get a 10-day, all-access VIP pass to Shelburne Orchards every spring.
On a recent Thursday morning in Shelburne, orchardist Nick Cowles putters around on a vintage, baby-blue Ford tractor. It's just warm enough for short sleeves: In a few weeks, acres of apple blossoms will open on orchards across the state, and bees will carry pollen from (male) "stamens" to (female) "pistils," consummating the annual regeneration of Vermont's approximately $20-million-per-year flagship fruit crop. Every apple ovary consists of five "carpels," each of which houses two "ovules." If more than one ovule isn't pollinated on a given carpel, the resulting apple will appear misshapen.
In other words, there's a lot riding on a tiny bee's itty-bitty shoulders.
This time of year, Cowles' orchard looks like a watercolorist's wet dream. Rows and rows of craggy, hundred-year-old Macintoshes stand around like cantankerous old men. A few horses neigh beside a weeping willow. And Lake Champlain shimmers on the horizon in kaleidoscopes of blue and gray. It's almost as if Cowles and his trees have traveled back in time.
Indeed, the guy resembles a kind of timeless, bucolic wizard - equal parts granger, hippie and hobbit. His stubbly face looks gnarled but handsome. A graying mane of hair blows in the breeze behind him. When Cowles smiles, his eyes twinkle.
Today's task? Digging holes with the frightening, 4-foot metal drill that dangles behind his tractor. Every minute or so, Cowles stops his machine and churns up a chunk of earth. A farmhand lopes along behind the tractor, sticking baby trees into freshly dug holes.
Cowles shifts the Ford into neutral. "I get so pumped every year when the orchard goes into blossom!" he yells over the motor's roar. "It really is like a renewal! If there weren't blossoms, there'd be no potential for a big harvest! And that would be depressing!"
This apple buff discusses bees casually, as if they were his old friends. Which, as it turns out, they are: His father started leasing bees from Bill Mraz's father, Charles, as early as the 1950s. Back then, Shelburne Orchards had 800 trees. Today it boasts 6000 - and the relationship between the two families is still healthy. "Whatever [Bill Mraz] is doing down there [in Middlebury], he's doing a good job!" Cowles shouts. "His hives are really strong!"
On the surface, Cowles is the kind of guy who doesn't seem to be worried about all that much. But even he admits, "If there's a problem with our pollinators, it's going to affect way more than apples!"
The wizard takes a deep breath, pops the clutch again, and squints. "This is my business," he confides. "But everybody eats."