By Marin Howell/Addison County Independent
Some may have been surprised when warm weather rolled in with the beginning of November, bringing sunny days and comfortable temperatures at a time when Vermonters are usually starting to bundle up for the winter.
The unseasonably warm days threw off local bees as well, which proved to be detrimental for some hives.
Local beekeepers believe warmer fall weather, though devastating for some bee colonies, likely won’t be the downfall for bees as a species. Still, they say these changing weather patterns create additional hurdles for beekeepers and are the result of an ongoing issue in need of addressing — climate change.
“There’s a lot of things that impact the bees, climate change is one of them,” Middlebury beekeeper Ross Conrad said. “(Fighting climate change) is going to take a big shift. Society has to shift, because if it doesn’t, this will be the last great mistake of the human race.”
Vermont has experienced multiple warmer-than-normal days in recent months. According to the National Weather Service, the temperature in Cornwall reached 66 degrees Fahrenheit on Nov. 6, approximately 26 degrees warmer than the daily average temperature there on that day over the past 30 years. That’s just one of many days this fall on which Addison County towns reported higher daily average temperatures than in previous decades.
And Vermont is not the only place experiencing warmer fall weather. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that since 1896, fall temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit across the contiguous United States, though temperature changes vary from state to state. These rising temperatures are one of multiple changes in climate the EPA has identified, many of which have been linked to the human-caused increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
Warmer fall weather can be problematic for bees, according to local beekeepers and other pollinator experts. When the temperature gets above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bees think it’s a good time to leave their hives and look for food. But the warmer fall temperatures are deceiving because there’s limited nectar available for bees late this time of year.
Karen and Gerald Posner, who own Ferrisburgh’s Swaying Daisies Honeybee Farm, said many of their bees have been tricked by the warm temperatures this fall.
“Bees are going out thinking it’s springtime and that there will be flowers. And they’ve found maybe a couple, but it’s not enough,” Karen said. “They can’t find enough food to survive so what they’re doing is eating through their winter stores of honey at a rate we’ve never seen before.”
Since the bees have been unable to find nectar, they turn to the honey they’ve stored for winter in their hives, which the Posners have tried to supplement with homemade bee food containing essential oils, amino acids, protein and sugar.
“To date, our colonies have already consumed 500 pounds of the supplemental sugar and protein mix as well as up to 10 pounds of honey stores on average per colony. This is unlike anything we’ve seen in past years,” said Gerald, who has been beekeeping since the 1980s.
Making this food can be pricey. The Posners estimate that it costs them about $350 to feed 10,000 bees, and their current population of 80,000 bees will grow to over 1 million by springtime. They’re raising money to help cover the cost of making food but said they’ve already lost 18 of their hives, and the impact on their small business has been substantial.
“For us, we’re watching our bees really struggle, and we’re just asking for people to help us with our bee farm,” Karen said. “We’ve only had our honeybee farm for just over two years, so it’s really hurting us. We are looking into possible grants as well; we’re going to need the help.”
The Posners are also hoping to build more resilient bee shelters to protect their hives from rapidly fluctuating temperatures and more intense winter winds, other changes in weather patterns linked to climate change.
Beekeepers in other states
Other Vermont beekeepers have been more fortunate this year. Charles “Chaz” Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiaries said his hives haven’t been severely impacted by climate change this year, and he’s much more concerned with how neonicotinoid pesticides are hurting the bees.
“Climate change isn’t a positive impact by any means. Like the warmer weather right now that we’re getting, (bees) need to shut down for winter,” he said. “But the real pressure they’re under is created by use of chemicals that aren’t needed. (Pesticides) are poisoning our environment.”
Beekeepers in other parts of the country are having a harder time dealing with the impacts of climate change, according to Mraz. He said a beekeeper he knows in Florida recently lost 300 of their hives during a hurricane, and apiarists on the West Coast are struggling with severe droughts and wildfires.
“We’ve had hurricanes before of course, but it seems like we’re having more and more of them,” he said. “Certainly, as a Vermont beekeeper, we’re very fortunate here. If you’re talking about out West then I’d certainly say yes, climate change has affected those out there terribly.”
Worse for wild bees
While domesticated bees are certainly struggling, Conrad said the impacts of climate change may be worse for wild bees without someone to feed or protect them.
“The problem for the native bees and wild pollinators is that there’s not an army of people out there caring for them,” he said. “All the indications are, from the research and the scientists, that bumblebees and the wild bees are in pretty rapid decline right now.”
A report on the state of Vermont’s bees published earlier this month by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, in collaboration with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, identified 55 species of wild bee species that face the risk of disappearing from the state if targeted conservation efforts are not implemented to protect them. The report listed climate change as one of the potential threats these wild bees are facing, along with pesticides, deforestation, parasites and invasive species.
Conrad acknowledged there are some wild bee species increasing in population, but the rapid rise and fall of various populations is another indicator of a destabilized climate, rather than a positive sign.
“That tells you that the environmental situation is not stable, if you’ve got dramatic shifts in populations with some species dying out and others increasing dramatically,” he said.
Learning from the bees
Perhaps one ray of hope is that Conrad doesn’t believe climate change will be enough to wipe out all the bees. He said these pollinators have proven to be resilient during times of change, something they has seen a lot of during the last hundred million years.
“They’re survivors. Part of the reason they survive, I believe, is because they learn to work together cooperatively,” he said. “Each bee on their own can’t survive, they work together as a colony.”
Conrad believes the bees’ collaborative effort is something we’ll need to learn from in order to effectively fight climate change, largely by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think we can learn a lot from the natural world, such as from bees. We need to start working collaboratively, working toward the same goal, to stop fighting about this or that and just start getting focused on what needs to be done and then do it,” he said. “It’s not just individual actions, we also need the policies at the local, state and federal level to shift things as well. Everything has to work together.”
He stressed there’s no time to waste in addressing the climate crisis, for both the bees and for the planet as a whole.
“There’s really no adapting to a rapidly changing climate,” he said. “We can adapt if we stop (climate change) getting worse from the way it is now, which will not be good.”