It’s all the Buzz

Taking a moment to cheer the pollinators at Lincoln Peak Vineyard.

On the early morning of June 18, Jack Byrne, director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College, presented on the measures the school has taken to be carbon neutral by 2016. Prominent among these has been the biomass generator with its wood-chip gasifier, which we toured immediately after Jack’s talk. What will likely tip the balance and even put their carbon footprint in the minus category is the bio-digester expected to come on-line next year.

Before lunch, we toured Middlebury’s dining halls and kitchens with executive director of food services Dan Detora. The college sources locally as much a possible from 50-60 farms in the area, serving 2,500 students fall through spring. All food waste is pulped and sent to a central composting facility. Our visit with Dan and several of his staff of 135 was followed by a trek out to Middlebury Organic Gardens where farm educator Jay Leshinsky showed us around.

After a few hours of rest and catching up on writing and reading assignments, our group convened at Davis Family Library for the main event of the day: a panel discussion about Bees and Climate Change, featuring Bill McKibben, environmentalist and Schumann Distinguished Scholar; Kirk Webster, apiarist and owner of Champlain Valley Bees & Queens; Helen Young, evolutionary field biologist and professor of Biology; and Dara Scott, director of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.

Bill McKibben referenced Pope Francis’ new encyclical on climate change and talked of the increased negative effects of climate change on bees and on food availability worldwide. “Bees serve as roving indicators of the health of everything,” he said – and with increased reports of colony collapse, that “everything” is looking extremely unwell. To cope, our current focus on increasing yields will have to give way to breeding for durability in the face of erratic weather patterns and seasonal shifting. He noted that we are leaving the relatively stable 12,000 year-old Holocene era and entering an unpredictable Anthropocene.

Woodchuck Cider is the bees’ knees!

Kirk Webster spoke of his efforts at breeding queens for resistance to several viruses carried by mites which have devastated honeybee colonies. It used to be that only five percent of his bees would not survive a Vermont winter; in recent years, the number has been as much as half. He is using old-new techniques that were understood in the early 1900s, but were forgotten until now. He takes from his mentor Sir Robert Howard the axiom that pests and disease should be regarded as friends and allies. Bees that he propagated from survivors in the past five years, he says, have become better bees.

Helen Young spoke of the biology of wild bumblebees and how they contribute to our food supply. Plants in the tomato family (tomato, potato, eggplant, and pepper) and all the berries people eat rely on “buzz pollination,” a vibrational technique peculiar to bumblebees. Bumblebees live in small colonies and only the queen overwinters. When she emerges in spring, she must find flowering plants to survive. It has been observed that Vermont springs have been starting sooner; if the timing of her emergence is off, the queen will die and the colony will not propagate. And neither will the plants that rely on pollination by bumblebees.

Dara Scott spoke of efforts in Europe to combat increasing genetic homogeneity of honey bees and subsequent lack of resistance to viruses carried by mites. His efforts and that of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society are to bring wild bees back to Europe. Ireland and Russia may be the last places outside of Asia that have the genetic material to strengthen immunity in bees. However, Asian bees are the ones that apparently introduced several of these viruses to European colonies. Isolation of European bees from these influences is part of the strategy of the Society.

The questions for the panel continued into the late evening hours of June 18. Our students were joined by videoconference by Food Works students from Louisville, KY, and Washington, DC. The voluminous information exchange was enlightening but often disturbing as well.

Next day, June 19, was a day that engaged the senses as well as the intellect, specifically the sense of taste. After tramping around among the new plantings and established eco-certified apple trees of Sunshine Orchards in the early a.m. with cider-maker Ben Calvi, the group adjourned to Woodchuck Cider for samples of that company’s renowned brew. After lunch, this sensuous experience was followed by another at Lincoln Peak Vineyard. Here, after a walk-around and a discussion of wine-making, the group sampled five wines produced by second-generation owner and vintner Sarah Granstrom.