The facts of Vermont beekeeping are quickly told: beekeepers number between eight hundred and one thousand; annual honey production from two to three hundred thousand pounds of honey, with a retail value of two million dollars.
Bees pollinate an estimated thirty four million dollars’ worth of Vermont crops - mainly apples, then pumpkins, blueberries and various small fruits and vegetables. And the Vermont beekeeping industry is increasing its ability to raise and over-winter replacement nucleus colonies.
For one hundred and fifty years honey bees have been numerous but often hidden actors in Vermont agriculture. They were among the main pollinators that made parts of Vermont, especially Addison County, a land of milk and honey. And many farmers kept a hive or two for a natural sweetener in addition to maple syrup.
While Vermont today has only a handful of full-time beekeepers, there are roughly one thousand hobbyists with up to ten hives each. There are also several dozen larger "side-liners" who produce more and pay taxes on the honey they sell. I'm in that middle group with two partners and about 30 hives.
To support this beekeeper community, there’s a solid infrastructure selling equipment, bees and queens, and other bee products like wax, pollen, a hive material called propolis and even bee venom.
In the last decade Vermont was largely unaffected by a national bee crisis known as Colony collapse disorder which rolled across the nation. But it did spur much greater public awareness of the bees' signal importance for pollination and honey.
Through this national notoriety bees became, as it were, poster insects for larger agricultural issues such as climate change, pesticides and monoculture – and as such became an intellectual entry ticket to better agricultural understanding for many citizens in Vermont and elsewhere.
One hundred years ago, most people thought of bees as just honey producers. Today's beekeepers know that they can't treat bees with benign neglect; unlike previous generations, they know they have to keep up with the science and evolving practices, and be "bee-keepers," NOT just "bee-havers."
And as more city and suburb dwellers take up beekeeping, we’re faced with a new conundrum of nomenclature: can we call someone with a few hives in the city, a "farmer?" To which a farmer might reply with an old Vermont saying that "Just because the cat has kittens in the oven, you don't call them muffins!"