A Fine Hive Mind
- By Joshua E. Brown
Dewey Caron, UVM class of 1964, leans over a beehive. Hundreds of honeybees zip around his head and under his arms. He seems wholly unconcerned. So do the bees.
Like the director of some kind of insect performance art, Caron stands in the midst of twenty wooden boxes — pink and blue commercial bee hives — plunked down on the green between Bailey-Howe Library and the Fleming Museum.
This “beeyard,” a square of chain-link fence surrounding the hives, is actually a teaching tool for some six hundred beekeepers — and, yes, wannabe beekeepers — attending the annual Eastern Apicultural Society meeting held on campus August 13-17.
In the fall of 1960, Dewey Caron was a freshman from Stamford, Vt., a chemistry major with a budding interest in insects. He points toward the crenelated towers of Converse Hall, “my first-year dorm,” he says, just a few hundred yards from where he stands today.
Now he is a honeybee specialist living in Oregon to be near his grandchildren. Professor emeritus of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, Caron is one of the world’s leading experts on Africanized bees (sometimes called “killer bees”) — and the program chairman of this beekeepers’ conference.
“Bees are vegetarians,” Caron says, noting that much of global agriculture depends on their habit of repeatedly collecting nectar and pollen from flowers of the same species. “They get fixed to a certain flower source,” he says, which, by accident, leads to the transfer of pollen — and, therefore, fertilization — in crops from Florida pumpkins to Maine blueberries.
Caron holds a smoking metal canister in one hand. He squeezes the hand-bellows attached to this “smoker,” and small grey puffs drift across the top of the hive and then into a tiny side-entrance hole. Caron opens the lid. “The smoke doesn’t hurt them,” he says. “It breaks up their initial defense system of guard bees — and then they get on with other things.” Like making honey.
This is the first time since 1980 the EAS has gathered in Vermont. Caron led that meeting too. Since then, some Africanized bees have moved north from Brazil into Central America and the U.S. Southwest, in some places pushing out the relatively docile European strains that dominate North American honey operations. These more-aggressive, quick-to-swarm varieties present some risk to people and to beekeeping practices.
But Caron worries more about the wellbeing of bees than any threat from them. Even as “killer bees” make sensational headlines, invasive mites and a mysterious ailment, called colony collapse disorder, have killed millions of bees, threatening farming around the world and making beekeeping a more challenging — and, perhaps, more noble — vocation.
Bee losses in North America remain high, to the dismay of many beekeepers and scientists. Above a third of hives fail each year due to colony collapse. The mites are clearly implicated in the disorder, but a complete picture of causes and treatments remains maddeningly unclear. Still, failure rates seem to have stabilized in recent years, and — judging by the buzzing chatter of the workshop attendees donning white veiled hats and waiting for their turn to get into the beeyard — the enthusiasm of beekeepers remains irrepressible.
“The losses are still an issue,” Caron says, as he holds up a golden-brown frame covered with bees, glistening with sunshine and honeycomb. In his retirement, Caron has been working to find techniques for reducing the losses from colony collapse disorder, including skilled methods of handling queen bees. “I take an epidemiological approach,” he says — informed, he notes, by his introduction to ecology and entomology a half-century ago by UVM professors Milton Potash and Ross Bell.
“It’s impossible to kill all the mites,” he says, and attempts with harsh chemicals have largely failed. “So we’re looking for a synergy, a balance point between mites and bees.”
“The epidemic will run its course,” he says, “and as it passes, how do we get out of the woods from all those losses, find an equilibrium, and get our bee populations back?”
Archeologists in Egypt unearthed jars of honey more than 3,000 years old — that were still edible. “Honey essentially lasts forever,” Dewey Caron says, as he replaces the lid on the hive. He hopes that bees last a long time too.