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Hampton - When it comes to honeybees, dire predictions that the mysterious disease called Colony Collapse Disorder could all but eliminate these critical pollinators might lead some to conclude that being a beekeeper these days is a little like being a buggy whip maker at the dawn of the automobile age.
Not Adam Fuller. The 53-year-old owner of A&Z Apiary in Hampton sees a bright future for his hives, which at 300 and growing make him one of the state's largest purveyors of honey, startup hives for beginning beekeepers and pollination services to orchards and vegetable farms throughout eastern Connecticut and in Dutchess County, N.Y.
"I'm optimistic about beekeeping," said Fuller, who got his first hive at age 19 and turned his hobby into a full-time business 15 years ago at his home in the state's rural northeast corner. "It's a lot of work but it's worthwhile. There's a huge demand for our product at a very good price."
With honey now selling for $8 per pound, Fuller extracts about 25,000 pounds of the sweet golden elixir annually, along with a couple of hundred pounds of beeswax his wife Charlene turns into attractively molded candles, lip balm and skin cream. Health food stores, farmers markets and farm stands, including Malerba's in Norwich, Brush Hill Dairy in Bozrah, C&C in Lebanon and the Willimantic Food Co-op, stock A&Z products.
"I'm continually adding more bees every year," said Fuller, as he walked by a dozen buzzing hive boxes, all surrounded by showers of bees circling, flying in with bright orange pollen cargo clinging to their legs and back out again, toward the barn he built three years ago with state financial assistance. Inside, he led the way to the processing room where he and his part-time worker spent several hours last week transferring honeycombs to extraction and canning machines that harvest and pack the season's product, a process that will continue through the fall.
Mark Creighton, the state bee inspector, said there are five or six other apiaries in Connecticut the size of Fuller's deriving their main income from beekeeping, and several dozen part-time operations with 30 to 40 hives. By far the majority of the state's 750-plus beekeepers - a number that has been growing steadily in recent years and only represents those who voluntarily register with the state - are backyard hobbyists with one or two hives. Like Fuller, Creighton believes Connecticut ought to be producing more of its own honey, especially in light of the thousands of tons of honey being imported into this country annually.
"It's been a good year for a lot of the beekeepers," he said. With all the imports, Creighton said, "I see a business opportunity. People would be buying more local honey if there were more available."
What about Colony Collapse Disorder, the disease first reported in 2006 that has been blamed for hive losses of 30 to 90 percent at some apiaries around the country? With crop pollination services by honeybees estimated at $15 billion nationwide annually, the problem drew widespread media attention because of the potential for devastating effects on agriculture from major bee dieoffs.
Researchers have yet to pinpoint a single cause, although a convergence of the effects of pesticides, the Nosema fungus, viruses carried by parasites called Varroa mites, poor beehive management and environmental stressors from habitat losses are being studied as possible culprits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Information on the department's website also notes that hive losses have decreased since 2006 and recommends a series of steps beekeepers can take to reduce the chances their hives will succumb to the dreaded disease.
While there have been no cases of Colony Collapse Disorder in Connecticut, Creighton said, beekeepers do have to remain vigilant about good hive management, including controlling the mites and giving supplemental feedings to ensure bees are getting adequate nutrition when pollen supplies are low.
"There are many things that go into general bee health," he said. "There are environmental and chemical issues, and pesticides do play a role. Healthy bees will succumb to pesticide exposure."
Fuller, for his part, believes Colony Collapse Disorder is mostly the fault of poor beekeeping practices. As president of the 300-member Eastern Connecticut Beekeepers Association and a teacher of beginning beekeeper classes, Fuller readily preaches his message that bees need a varied diet - and they won't get that if they spend all their time in a single-crop orchard or farm field - attentive management of mites and supplemental feedings of sugar syrup to stay strong and healthy through the winter, when losses naturally occur.
He's learned from his mistakes over the years, said Fuller, who owned a construction business before he decided to devote all his time to beekeeping. He believes that the healthier the bees, the better they will be able to withstand exposures to pesticides - which he says beekeepers have to accept as part of modern agriculture - as well as viruses, fungal attacks and harsh weather.
"In the 90s, a lot of commercial beekeepers gave up when Varroa mites first came to the U.S., and 50 percent of the managed hives were killed," he said. "Every beekeeper had mites. I lost 35 to 40 percent of my hives. But I realized that this is something I really loved, and that there had to be a way to deal with them."
Often, he said, new beekeepers tell him they want to raise bees naturally, but he urges them to be realistic and accept that they may need to use formic acid, mite-specific pesticides and thymol essential oil, as he does to control mites, which he said are the main cause of bee losses. And he reminds them that honeybees are not native to North America but were imported from Europe.
"When new beekeepers say they want to do this the all-natural way, I tell them, 'Let me tell you about Mother Nature. Mother Nature is a bitch. In nature, only two out of every 10 colonies have a chance of living through the first winter.' I'm not an idealistic person. I have to take care of my bees."
Connecticut, he said, is a good place to be a beekeeper, without the vast crop monocultures found in other parts of the country and sufficient variety of habitat to give bees a good selection of plants where they can gather pollen. He is quick to lament, however, about some of the invasive plants being targeted for removal, such as autumn olive, purple loosestrife and honeysuckle, which are favorites of honeybees, and that too many old fields and meadows in the state have grown into forests.
What would the ideal location for his apiary look like?
"It would be an area where there were poorly managed farms where the farmers didn't get out to hay on time, and weedy cornfields and overgrown pastures with hedgerows full of autumn olive and honeysuckle and sumac, and wetlands full of purple loosestrife," he said.
Colony Collapse Disorder, he believes, may have actually had a positive effect on beekeeping, by making the public aware of the importance of pollinators and increasing demand for locally produced honey, which some believe can help combat allergies.
"There's been a huge surge in interest in the last 10 years," Fuller said. "People are tired of not knowing where their food comes from. You can go to Wal-Mart and buy honey for half the price, but that's not going to be pollinating your local crops. We're blessed in a lot of ways in Connecticut. We have a good population that's relatively affluent and willing to pay what it takes to make honey."
If you're looking to buy local honey, you might want to look beyond the label.
So says Mark Creighton, the state's bee inspector. While there are many reputable beekeepers in the state who keep their hives locally, some who claim to sell local honey actually keep all of their hives out of state or buy honey from elsewhere. They may package the honey at their farm and label it as such, but their bees didn't gather their pollen locally, Creighton said.
The practice isn't illegal, but it's one consumers interested in supporting local agriculture may want to be aware of.
Creighton said most commercial beekeepers with local hives are registered with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. With the registration, the beekeepers certify that their hives are in the town they've registered in. Consumers can check that list online at www.ct.gov/caes/cwp/view.asp?a=2818&q=376964, under "List of Registered Beekeepers."
Another way to check whether honey is actually local is to talk to the beekeeper or the owner of the farm stand or health food store where it's being sold.
"Be inquisitive. Interact with them," Creighton said. "As what towns the bees are kept in."
- Judy Benson