Beekeeper Chas Mraz Talks Pollinators, Pesticides and Connectedness | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Beekeeper Chas Mraz Talks Pollinators, Pesticides and Connectedness

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Chas Maraz (left) and TJ Oliver - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Chas Maraz (left) and TJ Oliver

The phrase "We are all interconnected" is not New Age woo-woo. Skeptics need only ask a physicist. Or, if the very word "quantum" makes your eyes glaze over, ask a beekeeper instead.

That's what we did. Chas Mraz, 55, is a third-generation beekeeper at Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury — the namesake of Charles Mraz, who founded the business in 1931. Like his predecessors, Mraz the younger enthusiastically promotes all things bee, including bee-to-human connectedness.

We're not just talking about selling and eating honey or other apian-adjacent products. We're talking about salvaging a fragile food chain and ecosystem in which bees and humans — and innumerable other creatures — depend on one another.

For an illustration of that dependence, let's start by imagining that you can no longer walk into a coffee shop for your afternoon iced latte. If bees and other pollinators didn't exist, neither would coffee beans. Or coffee shops.

Then, let's say you go to the market to buy some avocados or almonds or pumpkins or good old Vermont apples, for heaven's sake, and find none. In fact, the produce section is a shadow of its former self.

You can see where this is going.

Some of us grew up thinking "the birds and the bees" was a euphemism for sex. It is — for plants. Many of them need a third party to consummate the deed. As other stories in this issue explain, honeybees aren't the only creatures that pollinate blossoms and help make food happen for all the rest of us. But let's ask beekeeper Mraz anyway — about his hives and his business, how we're all connected, what threatens that relationship and how screwed we'd be without bees.

Honeybees - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Honeybees

SEVEN DAYS: How long have you been in the beekeeping business?

CHAS MRAZ: I was born into it and worked with bees in high school, but I took over the company in 2004.

SD: What are the biggest changes you've witnessed with bees and your business over that time?

CM: The health of the bees and the disruption pesticides have caused.

SD: We've all heard of colony collapse. What does that mean, exactly, and what is causing it?

CM: Well, that's actually a bigger question. That was first one thing and then another; it's basically when a beehive just crashes. Even a healthy one, the bees just die. That's what I saw this past winter.

SD: How has this rapid die-off of bees changed your practices?

CM: We made the effort to do what was in our control; we tweaked our management as much as possible. Wrapping the bees in the winter, controlling for mites. The management, just in the effort to keep them alive, has tripled since the '90s.

SD: Losing bees must take an emotional toll.

CM: Definitely it does, no question about it. It's what puts food on my table, sends my kids to college. My bees are my babies, my girls. I work very, very hard to keep them alive and healthy. When you can't manage that, it's very difficult. You blame yourself first.

Champlain Valley Apiaries hives in Shoreham - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Champlain Valley Apiaries hives in Shoreham

SD: How many hives do you maintain?

CM: We try to run 40 colonies in each site. About 1,000 to 1,200 colonies.

SD: How many different sites?

CM: We have 28 of them, or 29.

SD: What kinds of plants are your bees pollinating there in Addison County?

CM: Every plant that supplies nectar to them. Legumes, trees, even wind-pollinated crops. Basically, almost everything that blooms. There are some plants that aren't good sources for nectar for honeybees. But the majority of honey comes from legume plants — clover, alfalfa, trefoil. Second is trees and bushes.

SD: What are some other Vermont-grown food crops that require pollination to reproduce?

CM: Apples, strawberries, all the berry farms. Peaches, all the fruits and nuts — though we don't grow nuts commercially here. Maple trees.

SD: So, these foods would completely disappear from the Earth without pollinators?

CM: They say a third of the food [would disappear] — all of the good stuff. We'd be down to grains and meats. Your pumpkins, squashes, are pollinated by bees and others. Clover, too, which cows eat. You really have to sit back and think ... it's kind of like looking at the stars. We focus on what humans need, but we're reliant on things which we don't understand.

Champlain Valley Apiaries honey - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Champlain Valley Apiaries honey

SD: I'm freaking out about this. Why isn't everyone?

CM: That's the thing about all this. [Chemical companies] are killing the soil. Nobody thinks about killing bugs, but they're so important. Without the bugs, forget about your food. For every bad bug they kill with pesticides, they kill seven good ones. Millions of years of evolution is very complex; we don't put it together in our heads very well.

SD: I guess we could blame the manufacturers of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals for caring more about short-term financial gains than the long-term health of, well, everyone. But is there anything we can do to change this trajectory? Could Vermont do more?

CM: Vermont could ban seed coatings, as a start. The states regulate pesticide use, [but] that regulation has been stripped from them [because the seed-coating chemical was reclassified]. We have to very aggressively regulate pesticides. We may not be able to get away from them completely, but we do not need pesticides that are so toxic and so misused that they shouldn't have been let out of the lab. A third of the pesticides that we use [in the U.S.] are banned in the European Union. [Editor's note: Learn more about chemical threats to bees and related Vermont legislation here.]

SD: If things keep going at the current rate — that is, if bee populations continue to decline — how long would it be before we started losing whole food crops?

CM: With nothing protecting pollinators, that's a very good question. I don't have a crystal ball. But if every beekeeper dropped dead today, honeybees would be dead in three years. There are hundreds of species of bees, even in Vermont. God only knows, but the damage we're doing right now is so substantial, we're gonna lose our land eventually — the whole concept of soil, farming, crops.

SD: This is obviously a serious global issue.

CM: I think it's right up there with climate change. It's a silent disaster.

Chaz Mraz - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Chaz Mraz

SD: So honeybees need humans to help them out, right?

CM: A lot. And we need them a lot more than they need us.

SD: When you're working with the bees, do you think about their role — and yours — in this interconnected ecosystem?

CM: All the time, absolutely. It keeps me up at night.

SD: On the Vermont Beekeepers Association website, the topics are best practices, problem solving, legislation, etc. I guess it's not surprising that there aren't any meta conversations. But do you and other beekeepers talk among yourselves about the interconnectedness of bee-ing?

CM: Beekeepers and farmers understand this. My father used to say you don't have to explain [the importance of] bees to a farmer. But they're kind of victimized in this whole thing, too. I have a lot of conversations with farmers and beekeepers about pesticides. It's just amazing what's going on out there with these companies and the lobbying. We're being maliciously lied to and misled. It's bad.

SD: What's your biggest hope for the story of Champlain Valley Apiaries specifically, and beekeeping generally?

CM: I'd like to see us get control of our farming practices again and get the chemical companies out of it. I don't know if it will happen. I'm not the best to do it; I'm overworked and don't have the time or the resources. Public awareness and public outrage are extremely important — their money in the supermarket, their votes.

We're all living in the environment; it's not just that field over there. It's a tough, big topic, and it's all more complex than people realize.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "To Bee or Not to Bee | Beekeeper Chas Mraz talks pollinators, pesticides and connectedness"