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Are Vermont bees thriving or dying? Depends who you ask

A honey bee gets nectar from the yellow and brown center of an orange, multi-petaled flower known as "sneezeweed."
Dirk Daniel Mann
Beekeepers point to pesticides known as neonicotinoids as the reason why their bees are dying.

Vermont’s bees are healthy, and the number of colonies in the state’s 1,200-plus apiaries is growing. That's according to a report by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. But the Vermont Beekeepers Association disagrees. They say their bees are under threat, and the growing number of colonies is a red herring.

The outcome of that debate could affect more than just the bees — it ties into conversations about pesticide use, farming, water contamination, and climate change.

On Wednesday, the first hearing will be held for H.706, which would restrict the use of neonicotinoids, or neonics, in Vermont. Rep. Robin Chestnut-Tangerman, a Democrat from Rutland County, is the sponsor of the bill, and he noted that Quebec banned neonics in 2019 to protect honeybees.

"We actually have five years of data from their experience, which is really helpful," said Rep. Chestnut-Tangerman. "Quebec went from virtually 100% treated corn seed to 0.5% treated corn seed, and has suffered no significant crop loss. That's pretty compelling."

Andrew Munkres is the owner of Lemonfair Honeyworks in Cornwall and the former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. He was also the keynote speaker for the VBA's winter meeting. Munkres said he listened to a panel hosted by UVM Extension with Quebec farmers to talk about their experience of the last five years.

"The big takeaway is that the farmers saw no changes in their yields, and had no pest problems," Munkres said. "There is no economic benefit, no yield benefit to using this treatment. The seed costs less without neonics, and the benefit for the pollinators are huge."

Chas Mraz, a third-generation beekeeper and honey producer with Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury, said the state needs to look at the science. He said farmers have been paying to use neonics without any benefit, and doing damage to the soil.

"I don't blame farmers for this problem," Mraz said. "These chemicals have been forced upon them, sold as the latest, greatest technology."

A representative with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets was scheduled but unable to join the show due to illness.

Broadcast at noon Monday, January 29, 2024; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.