Colony Collapse Disorder Inspired a Virginia Beekeeping Revolution, and Everyone is Buzzing About More, and Better, Local Honey
At this point, it’s probably safe to say your average food-loving Virginian has a general, if not foreboding awareness of the imperiled state of the honeybee. For many, the danger is best captured by three words: Colony Collapse Disorder.
Headlines announcing the epidemic went viral following the winter of 2006–2007, when U.S. beekeepers cited a catastrophic loss of hives (state averages ranged between 30–90 percent). Worse, the trend was mirrored in the wild.
“And there was no known historical precedent,” reminds Virginia state apiarist, Keith Tignor. Though beekeepers expect winter die-offs, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture cites 18 percent as the high-end of acceptability. “We had whole colonies of bees disappearing and more than half of them were exhibiting symptoms inconsistent with any known cause of honeybee deaths,” adds Tignor. Considering pollinators are responsible for an estimated one in three bites of food we eat and the reproduction of 90 percent of the planet’s flowering plant species, the situation was dire. Confronted by the apocalyptic mystery, “to say things looked bleak would been an absurd understatement.”
For me, the developments evoked an unforeseen bitterness. Amid the delights of spring now lurked a nasty killjoy: Spot one of the formerly common pollinators foraging in a patch of bright-purple clover blossoms and I got mournful.
‘This is a rarified sight,’ I’d say. Adding, if my children were around (girl, 8, boy, 13), ‘Like dodos and coral reefs, 50 years from now, your grandkids’ experience of these creatures will be relegated to books and screens.’
This spring, however, is different.
According to Tignor, though average winter losses hover around 30 percent nationally—and in 2017 were double that for Virginia—the danger of imminent extinction has been surmounted. Namely, research has led entomologists to understand CCD as the cumulative effect of a complex matrix of stressors, rather than a single disorder. The approach has made solving the problem more manageable.
“By addressing stressors individually, we’ve been able to increase resilience and strengthen colonies a lot faster,” says Tignor. Efforts have included innovations in disease management and quality-control practices; better education, outreach and breeding programs; greater municipal cooperation; the adaption of pollinator protection plans at the local, state and federal level; and much more. Combined, the results have affected a tipping point.
“Though we still have a long way to go, instances of CCD have stabilized and continue to decline,” says Tignor.
But that’s not the only good news. As opposed to simply maintaining stasis, the number of Virginia beekeepers has been growing. Tignor says widespread concern generated by vanishing bees has led to increased public interest and the beginnings of what appears to be a beekeeping renaissance.
While the state doesn’t keep official statistics—registry with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services isn’t mandatory for apiarists that don’t sell honey—Tignor says rosters for local and regional apiary clubs have soared. He estimates that, of the commonwealth’s 45,000 known colonies, as many as 10,000 have been established in the past 5–10 years. Meanwhile, sales from honey products have grown to more than $1 million annually.
What does this mean for Virginia foodies? A golden era of honey.
Nowhere is the evidence of a burgeoning Virginia beekeeping renaissance more apparent than the city of Harrisonburg. Surrounded by bountiful central Shenandoah Valley farmland, the 50,000-person municipality is seeking to become a designated Bee City USA and, thereby, the state’s most bee-friendly locale.
Developed by the Xerces Society—the nation’s most prominent nonprofit environmental organization devoted to the conservation of invertebrates—the initiative recognizes cities that have adapted a rigorous program of sustainable practices aimed at boosting the health and population of honeybees. (As a bonus, effects extend to other pollinator species as well.) Nationwide, 78 locations have been recognized since the program’s launch in 2014.
Spearheading the Harrisonburg plan is city landscaping manager Mike Hott—who also happens to run Hott Apiaries, one of the commonwealth’s largest and most respected apicultural businesses. According to Hott, the primary threats facing honeybees are threefold: Poor hive management, pesticides and habitat loss. If Harrisonburg can develop an effective, cost-efficient model addressing all three, other locales can follow suit.
But reversing decades of damage isn’t easy.
“Habitat is the toughest issue to tackle by far,” explains Hott. Crucial for pollination and the success of crops, beehives were once a staple of farms and homesteads. But as urban areas sprawled and suburban development exploded following World War II, farmland and forests vanished in droves. Ditto for personal fruit orchards and vegetable gardens. With modernization, more and more people relied on grocery stores for foodstuffs. Remaining farmers shifted toward self-pollinating, single-crop systems like corn or soybeans. Honeybee populations declined.
“In the early 1970s, there were more than 90,000 beehives in Virginia,” says Hott. By the mid-1990s, those numbers had shrunk to less than 30,000.
Making matters worse, tastes in landscaping had changed as well.
“People started planting things around their homes that didn’t attract the bees or, in many cases, harmed them,” says Hott. Clover and wildflowers were removed in favor of toxic perennials like azaleas and annuals that produce neither pollen nor nectar; weeds were managed with chemical pesticides; hardwood forests were replaced by pine trees. With a 2–4-mile foraging range, honeybees had to work harder to gather the nectar they needed to survive. “Worker bees make honey to provide the colony with food for the winter,” says Hott. “When they can’t make enough, the colony dies.”
Toward mending the situation, Hott has overhauled city landscaping practices. He’s spent the past 10 years transitioning Harrisonburg’s parks and decorative landscaping toward being 100 percent pollinator-friendly. Unused grassy areas and seas of mulch have been replaced with a combination of flowering trees and shrubs. Along with herb and native flower gardens, they feed bees through the spring, summer and fall. Partnerships with the Virginia Department of Transportation have installed wildflowers in more than 500 acres lining local median strips and exits from the interstate. Also, Hott has worked with officials to develop city-sponsored programs encouraging residents to swap out old landscaping in favor of ‘bee gardens.’ And he is helping James Madison University adapt similar techniques across its 21,000-student campus.
According to Tignor, boosting pollinator-friendly plants helps bees in more ways than one.
“It creates functional ecosystems that naturally choke out weeds and abolish the need for chemical pesticides,” says Tignor. In fact, Hott says he’s reduced the city’s reliance on pesticides to nearly zero and stopped using mulch—which contains harmful dyes. “That makes a huge difference,” Tignor confirms. “That’s going to double-up the impact of the flowers, because you’re no longer putting down poisons that kill bees.”
Another major element of the campaign is educating farmers and connecting them with area beekeepers.
“There are a variety of best practices that, when correctly implemented, can minimize or even nullify the damage bees suffer due to the application of pesticides by farmers,” says Hott. But if farmers aren’t made aware, they can kill bees inadvertently. With 600 hives devoted to honey production and another 300 to breeding workers and queens, Hott has a vested interest in keeping farmers up-to-date. “Mostly it’s about good communication,” he says. “I’ve lived in this area for most of my life and have been keeping bees for more than 30 years. I know nearly all the farmers and work closely [with local beekeeping organizations and agricultural extension agents] to make sure everyone stays on the same page. I’ve convinced many farmers to switch to no-spray methods. But if I know what and when so-and-so is spraying, I can protect bees from those toxins.”
Lastly, Hott works tirelessly to disseminate knowledge to area beekeepers and troubleshoot the issues they encounter. Though national averages for losses hover around 30 percent, Hott loses less than 10 percent of his bees in a given year. Last year, his company produced about 20,000 pounds of honey, sold more than 200 local starter-colonies (that’s 240,000 bees!) and shipped another 2,000 queens nationwide. Hott attributes the business’s success to pristine hive maintenance practices.
“Mites, viruses and fungal infections are a big problem, but we don’t have any of those issues,” he says. “That’s because we’ve implemented practices that prevent them from developing in the first place. And if they do, we know how to detect and treat them immediately, before things spiral out of control.”
Additionally, bees are bred to be naturally adapted to the area, and Hott never uses antibiotics. This means his bees are more resilient to toxins and less susceptible to disease.
Hott says he seeks to help others adapt similar tactics.
“On a formal level, we offer beekeeping classes through the apiary and have partnered with various groups and organizations to try to increase those learning opportunities,” he says. “But I’m always willing to take a phone call. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll probably head over and take a look at what’s going on and try to help sort it out.”
With a wave of new beekeepers, the availability is important—Hott says apiarists have about two weeks to address symptoms before the damage becomes irrevocable; knowing someone is there to help bolsters confidence. Newfound enthusiasm has led to the establishment of an annual honeybee festival and the passage of ordinances allowing hives within the city limits. In answer to the boom, Hott opened a retail supply store in downtown Harrisonburg in January. That way, experts will be on-call throughout the day to provide feedback, address questions and help tackle emergencies.
“He’s basically assumed the role of backbone for the area’s beekeeping community,” says Tignor with a laugh. “If there’s someone keeping bees around Harrisonburg, you can bet they know Mike.”
Though it keeps him incredibly busy, Hott says he’s thrilled to be leading the charge.
“I learned this stuff as a boy studying under my grandfather, and to be able to pass on that knowledge and the joy it’s brought me is such a gift,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, if you’d told me a beekeeping renaissance was on the horizon, I would’ve laughed in your face. But today, it’s fast becoming a reality.”
Hunting For Honey
Discovering Virginia Apiaries By Region
Fern Hill Apiary, Marshall—Husband-and-wife team Donielle and Michael Rininger started as hobbyists and have been keeping bees for nearly 25 years. Featured in the Washington Post, Fern Hill grew out of their experimental forays and has expanded to include more than 20 colonies and a full line of Fauquier County honeys, educational classes, wax and candles.
Cardinal Apiaries, Fredericksburg—Sixteen miles northwest of Fredericksburg lies Cardinal Apiaries, the only Certified Naturally Grown apiary in Stafford County (and one of the few in the state). Managed by a family of homesteaders, Cardinal offers raw, unfiltered wildflower honey and sells 3-pound starter packs of bees and queens onsite.
Horseshoe Point Honey, Suffolk—Located within 15 miles of Norfolk and 50 miles of anywhere in Coastal Virginia, Horseshoe Point’s honey is perfect for locals looking to stave off seasonal allergies. In business since 2002, proprietors Sean and Jan Kenny are active members of the Tidewater Beekeepers Association, where Sean frequently teaches classes. Though they don’t sell honey products onsite, the website includes a list of stores that do.
Sunshine Farm & Apiary, Norfolk—One of the few Virginia apiaries with an online store. Founded in 2013 in Norfolk, this small but ambitious USDA-certified operation offers an array of products. Inventory includes beeswax and skin-scrubs, as well as chunk, creamed, raw and cut-comb honey. Also, a line of soaps and honey-themed ceramics via a collaboration with Stone Horse Farms.
Willow Creek Apiaries, Chesapeake—Chesapeake-based father and son duo Harold and Nick Delphia started keeping bees in 2008 and quickly got hooked. Within a few years, both became deeply involved with the Beekeepers Guild of Southeast Virginia—with Nick holding multiple offices, including president. Regulars at the Western Branch Farmers Market, the pair sells raw honey, lotion bars, lip balm, handmade soap, beeswax candles and all-natural bug repellent.
Whistle Creek Apiaries, Lexington—Founded in 1967, Willow Creek is one of the oldest apiaries in the commonwealth. Fifty years of multi-generation experience yields superior products that are 100 percent raw, natural and unprocessed. Single-source varieties include locust, thistle, clover and tulip poplar. Wildflower options vary by year and are graded ranging from dark to light hues, offering full-bodied to mild flavors. Special batch creamed honeys are a treat—in addition to traditional recipes, try seasonal tastes like cinnamon, pumpkin spice, chocolate mint and more.
Hungry Hill Farm, Shipman—Glen Clayton Sr. has been producing honey on his Nelson County farm since the mid-1960s. With the help of his children and grandchildren, the longtime beekeeper sells 1-pound blocks of wax, shiitake mushrooms, beeswax candles and raw honey at farmers’ markets in Charlottesville, Nellysford, Lynchburg and Forest. A commercial purveyor of bees and Dadant beekeeping supplies, Hungry Hill offers occasional educational demos and classes onsite.
Mossy Creek Apiaries, Fishersville—The honey-making arm of Fishersville’s Valley Bee Supply store. Though founder Shane Clatterbaugh started off as a hobbyist, he conceived the store as a means of connecting Augusta Country beekeepers and introducing newbies to the activity. In addition to selling beekeeping supplies and raw honey, Clatterbaugh manufactures wooden hive boxes and offers educational and support services for area beekeepers.
Happy Hollow Bees & Honey, Blacksburg—Founded in 1973, Happy Hollow keeps between 150–200 bee colonies on mountain farms in the counties of Montgomery and Giles. A breeding expert, owner Richard Reid is seeking to develop mite and virus-resistant bees from localized varieties and those from around the world. A longtime student of Vermont guru Mike Palmer, Reid aims to supply the region with excellent, locally adapted bees. And did we mention he sells wild honey?
Spikenard Farm, Floyd—With the emergence of CCD, Spikenard Farm wanted to do something to help. As a result, the Honeybee Sanctuary was created in 2006. Planting a garden filled with pollinator plants, the farm established a research nonprofit aimed at systematizing a sustainable, biodynamic approach to beekeeping. The results have been astonishing: Spikenard now loses less than 5 percent of its bees each year. Visits to the garden are encouraged; educational opportunities abound.
Read more here about honey in our Guide to Local Honey Flavors.