Every beekeeper fears a swarm, and Alison Moncrief Bromage is no different. One day late in the fall of 2015, Moncrief Bromage, a writing tutor at Ezra Stiles College, went to check on the honeybee hive that she and her neighbors managed in Branford, CT.
It was Moncrief Bromage’s first year as an amateur apiarist, and she felt encouraged by her initial success: The hive seemed healthy, and she expected a fruitful honey yield. Honeybee activity can be roughly gauged by sound, so Moncrief Bromage pressed her ear against the outside of the hive and listened for buzzing.
She heard nothing. The hive was empty, save for the queen and a handful of worker bee attendants. Her bees had swarmed unexpectedly, either to start a new colony somewhere else or, less optimistically, to die. The loss hit the budding beekeeper hard.
“It felt like a miscarriage,” she told The Politic.
The loss was devastating but not unique. Connecticut beekeepers lost 62 percent of their hives in 2016—significantly higher than the already alarmingly high national rate of 33 percent. Emma Mullen, a honeybee researcher with Cornell University’s Pollinator Network, likened the situation to losing livestock.
“Imagine being a farmer that has cattle or some other livestock and having to deal with 62 percent of your cows dying every year,” Mullen said in an interview with The Politic. “Not a lot of farmers would be in business still.”
Beekeepers across the state are asking: What is killing Connecticut’s bees, and what can be done to stop it?
Moncrief Bromage does not know why her first hive swarmed. But the bees’ disappearance—sudden and inexplicable—resembles a phenomenon that still haunts beekeepers more than a decade after it was first observed: colony collapse disorder.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) was first observed in 2006. Mullen explained that no single cause for CCD has been determined. There are many possible culprits: parasites, pathogens, viruses, and harmful pesticides like neonicotinoids.
“It’s probably a multitude of factors that are interacting with each other,” she said.
The data behind bee mortality rates is imperfect and incomplete. Mullen acknowledged that some beekeepers are misdiagnosing their hives with CCD when other causes may be responsible.
“We don’t have a great handle on how common it actually is,” she said, adding that verification of CCD reports by experts is not common.
If CCD is not the cause of Connecticut’s honeybee losses, the Varroa mite—a parasite that tucks itself into capped cells that are pregnant with bee larvae—could be. The adult mite lays several eggs. Its larvae then hatch and feed on the developing bees. The honeybee hosts emerge from their cells sickly and deformed, and the infestation spreads.
Mullen and her team conducted a statewide survey of New York beekeepers, and their research confirmed that Varroa mites are devastating bee populations. More than three quarters of the participating beekeepers had harmful levels of Varroa mite infestations in their hives. These same hives often had viral infections, which are nearly impossible to treat given the lack of antiviral bee medications.
Fellow beekeepers told Moncrief Bromage that a severe mite infestation in her first year was unlikely. She decided to soldier on, and began her second year with two hives and new bees shipped from Kentucky. She stressed the importance of preparing the bees for chilly winter months.
“By August, if things aren’t going well, it’s really not looking good going into the winter,” she said. Both of her new hives failed after consistent trouble with their queens, leaving the beekeeper heartbroken once again.
This year was the first time that Moncrief Bromage treated her hive for Varroa mites. She felt more confident this time, since she was managing just one hive, and she had high expectations for honey and beeswax yields. She decided to go on a ten-year beekeeping hiatus if this year’s bees swarmed again.
Moncrief Bromage’s hopes were dashed when, early this October, she found her queen attended by just a few hundred bees. The rest of her hive was nowhere to be found.
“I didn’t want to think there was symbolism here, that the bees kept leaving,” she lamented, but her repeated losses have been discouraging.
Despite her dismay, Moncrief Bromage’s passion for the art of beekeeping persists.“I love the lore and the mystery and magic of it,” she said.
The practice has roots in ancient Egypt where honey was used to satiate both the elites and their gods. Honey played a key role not just on the table, but in the tomb, as it was a crucial ingredient during the embalming process. Egyptians used beeswax, which was cheap and widely available, to seal jars, make medicines, and wax wigs. Like honey, it played a role in the funerary customs of the ancient Egyptians. Embalmers plugged bodily orifices with beeswax before burial.
Moncrief Bromage, a published poet, discovered beekeeping through Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Plath’s father was a highly regarded apiarist in his time, and Plath decided to try her hand at the craft. Her poetry catalogs her experiences handling the bees, from dumping her first hive to collecting honey before winter. It is no wonder that the rich descriptions inspired a fellow poet to take up the art.
But inspiration will not save the honeybees. Moncrief Bromage, still searching for ways to keep her bees alive, is at a loss. Mullen’s research could provide Moncrief Bromage and other struggling beekeepers with some much-needed answers.
A surprising discovery in Mullen’s survey concerned the use of pesticides. Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides, kill insects by incapacitating their central nervous systems. The chemicals have a bad reputation among beekeepers and environmental activists, and for good reason: research has shown that neonicotinoid exposure harms bee reproduction and health. In 2018, Maryland will become the first state to issue a neonicotinoid ban, a move motivated in large part by the state’s dwindling number of honeybees. Compared to Maryland’s losses, Connecticut’s were even more severe.
Mullen has found that certain pesticides can have ruinous effects on the health of bees, but her research gives beekeepers reason to be optimistic. Very few hives surveyed in the study harbored harmful levels of pesticides, which means the chemicals are not likely to be the primary cause of Connecticut’s bee crisis.
Though pesticides may not pose an acute risk to honeybees, Mullen acknowledges that low-dose exposure could still have long-term effects.
But another factor lurks behind New England’s honeybee losses. The problem may not be parasites or pesticides but the bees themselves. When Moncrief Bromage’s first hive swarmed, she replaced those bees with new ones shipped from Kentucky, a state with a much warmer climate than Connecticut’s. The practice of importing honeybees from warmer climates is not unique to amateur beekeepers like Moncrief Bromage.
Ian Knisely founded East Rock Apiary in New Haven, CT, with his father in 2013. Knisely was reading articles about CCD when he remembered that his father used to tend bees as a child. Eager to help combat the spread of CCD, Knisely convinced his father to revisit beekeeping, and East Rock Apiary was born.
The Kniselys sell honey and beeswax products at local farmers’ markets and on their website. But profit was not the point. The mission was what mattered to Knisely.
“It’s a win-win, not only because we give back and contribute, but we also get honey, which is a bonus,” he said.
The apiary has been generally successful at keeping its bee population healthy. But last winter, the apiary lost several hives to unknown causes. Knisely suspects CCD was the culprit.
To recover from the loss, Knisely and his father raised a few of their own queens, a process that involves feeding bee larvae a strict diet of royal jelly, a substance that causes larvae to develop into fertile queens if consumed in large quantities. The Kniselys then divided existing hives into smaller clusters and introduced the new queens. The smaller hives grew independently of one another and eventually matured into fully functional colonies.
Like Moncrief Bromage, Knisely also ordered honeybees from other states—Georgia, in particular—to replace some of the lost bees. Knisely thinks the imported bees were a boon to his hives, adding that their distinct genetics allowed him “to mix and match a little bit.”
But bee importation comes with several disadvantages.
Shipped bees almost always come from climates warmer than New England’s, typically the South and California, where winters are not as harsh. Those bees may die off simply because they are not accustomed to the colder conditions. Richard Cowles, an agricultural researcher for the state of Connecticut, told the Hartford Courant last May that the bees from warmer climates can weaken the honeybee gene pool in New England and spawn populations that are ill-prepared for winter and less likely to survive.
In addition, mail-order bees travel in close quarters for long stretches of time during shipping. Stress from the journey makes the bees more susceptible to disease and parasites, and their close proximity to one another contributes to the spread of pathogens. When the transporter distributes the bees to different hives across the region, the infestations can spread exponentially.
One prime suspect remains: climate change, the least tangible yet most troubling explanation for Connecticut’s honeybee decline. Unlike parasites and pesticides, climate change is impossible for beekeepers to combat directly. There is no quick fix.
The honeybee crisis has been brewing for years. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study conducted with preserved goldenrod specimens dating as far back as 1842 found that as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose, the amount of protein found in goldenrod pollen decreased significantly.
“Pollen is becoming junk food for bees,” Lewis Ziska, a botanical researcher, told Yale Environment 360 last year. Bees, both managed and unmanaged, rely almost exclusively on pollen for protein. While the drop in protein caused by climate change might not have an obvious impact on honeybee mortality, poor nutrition can make bees more susceptible to disease.
Without antiviral medications for bees, there is only so much that beekeepers can do to protect their hives from the pathogens to which they are now more susceptible. Beekeepers like Moncrief Bromage who have struggled repeatedly with parasites, viruses, and other diseases are understandably frustrated.
“You’ve caught me at this kind of crossroads,” Moncrief Bromage said. “The mystery and the lore have got a hold of me.”
The mystery is poetic, but it also has the potential to be catastrophic. Modern agriculture cannot function without honeybees. Of the 100 crops that feed the majority of the world’s population, 70 are pollinated by bees. They provide a 30 billion dollar service each year for free, not including revenue from honey and beeswax. It would be nearly impossible to feed the world’s livestock without the bees’ charitable contributions to the food chain.
The need for beekeepers has never been greater. Whether Moncrief Bromage adheres to her ten-year hiatus is yet to be seen. Despite her previous failures, beekeeping still enchants her.
“When you dump your first hive,” she beamed, “I think that’s the other side of beekeeping.”
When Moncrief Bromage began her first year, she shook out the shipping box of honeybees over her empty hive. She watched in awe as the bees fell from their wooden container into their new home. The writhing, sibilating, viscous mass of wings, antennae, and thoraces went straight to work.
“You can’t read about that,” she said, laughing warmly.