Vermont museum uses 'bee team' to educate visitors on bees
By BETH CHAMPAGNE
Jul. 17, 2017
ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — Got bees? That's a question people are asking as lawns and gardens, once full of bees, bugs, blooms, and butterflies — not to mention fireflies — seem less and less a "buzzing, blooming confusion" in summer.
But at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, bees are abundant this summer. Inside an observation hive, just outside the back door, visitors can view honeybees at work, building comb, filling and capping hexagonal cells, and flying in and out to forage for nectar and pollen.
Mike Heath, 36, is the beekeeper on the museum's "Bee Team."
"We need bees," he said. About 80 percent of our food crops, from almonds to zucchini, depend on bees for pollination. A Groton native, Heath began keeping bees six years ago at his home in Peacham. He admits he's hooked on honeybees: "They're fascinating. You learn something new every day."
Heath keeps Russian bees, which have a natural resistance to the Varroa mite, long considered the greatest threat to the nation's commercial bees and beekeepers. He continually crossbreeds his honeybees, in order to build a pool of genes that can give his bees resilience and resistance to pests and diseases.
"All beehives," Heath says, "have mites. The question is whether or not the bees can manage them effectively. By and large, locally raised and locally adapted bees are far better suited for survival than bees shipped from out of state.
"Most beekeepers," he explained, "treat for mites once or twice a year in order to control these pests. Unfortunately, these treatments do not kill off all the mites. The strongest survive, and go on to reproduce, making the next generation of mites stronger than the last."
Heath described a recent University of Vermont study that found that honeybee diseases are communicable to other species of bees and pollinators. "As we strengthen the diseases and pests of honeybees through treatments," Heath said, "we are also creating 'superbugs' of sorts."
Superbugs — bee diseases and bee pests resistant to the drugs used to treat bees — are spread by foraging honeybees, and picked up by wild pollinators. Bumblebees foraging around honeybee apiaries, the UVM study found, are far sicker, on average, than "bumbles" foraging in areas not visited by honeybees. Effects on other pollinators, such as butterflies, are still being studied.
Climate disruption, however, "plays as much a part in the decline of pollinators as pesticides and disease," Heath said. "Climate really is a huge concern. The weather has always been gradual, and incremental — and we're not seeing that."
In March and April, "rubber band" weather — up to 60 in the sun, and down to minus 10 at night — killed off 40 percent of Heath's hives.
Honeybees, he explained, "are almost biological robots." Sudden warmth, spring or fall, causes bees to break open their tightly packed winter cluster — in which they vibrate their wing muscles, producing the heat to keep themselves alive — and then, as the mercury plummets at night, to freeze to death.
An unseasonably cold and rainy May in the Northeast Kingdom, Heath noted, was "devastating" to the bees. "Bees can't fly in the rain. The sun has to be shining, and it has to be warm, at least 60 degrees. When the nectar comes in, and then the weather turns back to winter, it really screws up the circadian rhythm of the whole hive."
The purchased bees that Kane and Heath placed in the observation hive suffered steady losses during May. So Heath brought in some bees of his own — moving them at dusk, when they wouldn't be inclined to fly. Huddled together the next morning, the newcomers, over the day, joined the hive, going into the comb, and flying out to forage with the others.
By summer's end, the museum will have a second hive, inside a massive oak stump, where bees will do as wild bees do, collecting an antiviral, antimicrobial fungus from rotting wood to build their own resistance to pests and disease.
Honeybees are naturally "tremendously hardy," he said. "Commercialization is the problem." The dominance of massive apiaries has led to the use of pesticides and medications "as preventive maintenance," not just to handle specific problems, he said. It has also drastically reduced honeybee crossbreeding, he said, causing "a genetic bottleneck," reducing hives' resilience.
In the observation hive, crossbreeding is under way, promising increased resilience to these bees, even as their intricately choreographed life as a hive serves the purposes for which Franklin Fairbanks gave this museum to his town: To inspire wonder and curiosity about nature.
Fairbanks Museum Director Adam Kane is adamant about extending the institution's mission, in the 21st century, to "inspiring responsibility" for the natural world.
Information from: Rutland Herald, http://www.rutlandherald.com/