Sick, Poisoned and Hungry: The Bees of New York State
December 09, 2014, 4:00am

By Jake Blumgart, Truthout | Report

Caledonia Spirits is a craft distillery nestled in the sparsely populated northeastern corner of Vermont. The company’s founder, Todd Hardie, has tended honeybees for decades. He began the practice almost 50 years ago, when he was 12, and began dabbling in the practice on the family farm.

As a result, Caledonia Spirits’ signature liquors, gin and vodka, contain a mellow undertone of honey: The company uses about 100 barrels a year, at 640 pounds a barrel (about six pounds of honey goes into each bottle of vodka).

Hardie’s business is thriving, but talk with him about the bees and he sounds distinctly depressed. Although he still keeps some hives, they are no longer his principal business. It simply doesn’t make economic sense. Where once he managed to get 95 percent of the bees through the winter – an especially hard season for them – today it takes luck if even 50 percent to 20 percent survive. The New York State beekeepers that provide Caledonia Spirits with much of its honey are being ravaged too. One of their principal suppliers lost 70 percent of his hives last summer, with another 20 percent dying in the spring.

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“The price of honey goes up every year, and we have to factor that into our spirits … we are going to go further this year to get honey,” Hardie, who sources as many of his ingredients locally as possible, told Truthout. It seems to pain him that Caledonia Spirits now has to bring in honey all the way from Michigan, over 1,000 miles away. “We don’t want to transport anything that far, but we don’t have a choice.”

Bees have been dying off at an alarming rate for years now, and the pain has rippled out through agriculture markets. Besides products like Caledonia’s craft spirits, which contain actual honey, bees pollinate plants that produce roughly a quarter of the food consumed in the United States. A report released by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) claimed that the 2013-2014 winter toll wasn’t as bad as previous years, only claiming a death rate of 23.2 percent across the nation – lower than the 29.6 percent average over the previous eight years.

A commonly cited culprit are neonicotinoids, an especially noxious form of pesticides that has been in heavy use since the 1990s and appears to be especially toxic for bees. In Western New York, where Caledonia Spirits used to get much of its honey, neonicotinoids have been used widely since the beginning of the last decade, and beekeeping has become next to impossible in the heavily agricultural western swathes of the state.

A recent study, the most thorough conducted thus far, found that “the existing literature clearly shows that present-day levels of pollution with neonicotinoids and fipronil [are] predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.”

“When they first went on the market, they were supposed to be on the plant for up to 70 days [only], but research indicates you can find this stuff in the ground after only planting it once,” Jim Doan, a New York state beekeeper who has testified before Congress several times about the bee die-off, told Truthout. (He argues that the USDA study was taken too soon and that by the end of winter, death tolls were far higher.)

“You can overlay the maps of where these products are used and where the biggest bee problems are in terms of die-off are . . . in relation to where the largest amounts of these products are being used.”

Doan used to keep bees in western New York, with its vast tracts of vine crops like cucumbers and squash, which are usually treated with large amounts of neonicotinoids. But the die-off became economically insupportable in a region that supports eight of the 10 largest farms in the Northeastern United States.

“We’ve given up keeping bees here in western New York and have moved our operation upstate into the Tug Hill Plateau because we could no longer sustain our bees here in this area.” Doan says their losses have lessened, but that it would be impossible to transfer the state’s beekeeping industry into the mountainous region.

But neonicotinoids are not the only culprit and domesticated honeybees are not the only victims. One study of the Midwest found that half of the bee species in the Midwest have been wiped out in the last 100 years. (Wild bees are more likely to go extinct without any human overseers to notice.)

The voracious expansion of developed land, both for agricultural and suburban/urban uses, has destroyed untold swathes of flower habitats – which are the main food supply for bees. Increased international trade coupled with the inept cleaning and maintenance of transported hives have ensured the spread of diseases and parasites. Native bee populations are being ravaged by illnesses and mites that they are unable to defend against. And there are pesticides beyond neonicotinoids: A recent study found hives with traces of 30 different insecticides.

“There isn’t a single cause that explains bee die-off everywhere,” David Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, told Truthout. “Perhaps the most important thing is that these three things – the lack of food, the diseases, and the pesticides – are not independent of each other. If you are hungry, and diseased and poisoned all at the same time, then you might well die, whereas one of those things, you might have been able to cope with.”

But Goulson does not mean to imply that this tangle of causation is insurmountable. It actually means that tackling any one of these causes could very well help.

There isn’t yet a known way to deal with the varroa mites, originally from China, that have been bedeviling North American bee populations and spreading killer viruses. But that doesn’t mean a European-style ban on neonicotinoids wouldn’t work, especially if paired with a concerted campaign to grow substantial amounts of additional flowers for bee populations to feed on.

If it proves politically impossible to ban neonicotinoids across the United States, incentives could be provided to steer farmers back to integrated pest management, a system that counsels pesticide use only when strictly necessary. (A recent Environmental Protection Agency study of neonicotinoid use on soybean crops found that the pesticide had “little or no overall benefits.”)

Federal, state and local governments have been taking minor steps to address the bee die-off. In June of this year, President Obama set up a “Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees,” which provides incentives for those who provide new habitats for honeybees. But limited to executive branch action, the fund contains $8 million only.

In 2013, the European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids on both crops and lawns for two years. A few American cities in the Pacific Northwest have done the same, including Seattle this past September. At the end of October, Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture announced that they were considering a ban on the pesticides in their state.

“We need congressional help, and I don’t see that happening,” said Doan, who added he has heard from Midwest beekeepers who are already losing substantial numbers of hives this year. “I don’t see this getting better. You could stop using it tomorrow, and we would still be three to four years away from not seeing bee kills of the magnitude we are at. I don’t see much of a future. The only future I see is hiding, [like his] past year in the mountain. Raising bees where we can be safe. But we can’t have 50,000 hives all hide in the mountains with us.”

Hardie traveled down from Vermont to the Empire State Honey Producers Association’s picnic this summer. But instead of the usual trade talk, the discussions focused on the magnitude of bee deaths, how many hives lost. “I was very depressed by [the picnic]. It’s terrible, but it’s real.”

Caledonia Spirits will be bringing its honey in from farther away than ever this year. Vermont is more hospitable to bees than western New York, but like that state’s Tug Hill Plateau it is difficult to keep them here at the density required for serious agriculture. And, even up here, times are tough. The Caledonia Spirits distillery used to keep a few hives on site, but last winter those died too.

“I think we can reduce pesticide use and that would be good for everyone: More flowers, less chemicals,” says Goulson. “But it’s the big industries which have [such significant] influence on how we farm. The seed producers are the same companies that sell all the pesticides; they have something of a stranglehold on the way we farm. Trying to reduce pesticide use is going to reduce the profits of those companies. It’s a problem with no easy solution.”