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All the buzz about honey bees

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Photos by Tamie Meck A frame from a honey bee hive, showing what a bee keeper sees when checking the "nuc." A hive consists of boxes arranged in layers; each box contains multiple frames, which is the structure upon which worker bees create the waxy comb

"Isn't it funny, how bears likes honey?" Winnie the Pooh once sang.

People like honey, too. According to "The History of the Honeybee & Beekeeping in Colorado," by Niwot-area beekeeper Tom Theobald, humans have been domesticating bees and harvesting honey for thousands of years. The earliest known evidence of honey harvesting dates back to 7000 B.C. In Colorado, the first honeybees were brought into the newly-established Colorado territory by Isaac McBride, who brought them to Denver by oxcart in 1862. And while that colony didn't survive its first winter, beekeeping quickly became a part of Colorado's booming economy.

Today, according to the USDA Farm Service Agency, bees and other pollinators contribute about $20 billion annually to U.S. agricultural production and $217 billion worldwide.

If you've been thinking about keeping bees and harvesting your own honey, you're not alone. Beekeeping organizations across the country are seeing an increase in interest in small-scale beekeeping. But beekeepers are quick to warn the potential beekeeper that it isn't for everyone. Beekeeping takes time, patience, and a lot of shrewd problem-solving.

About a dozen people recently attended a bee workshop at Thistle Whistle Farms outside of Hotchkiss, held in collaboration with The Learning Council.

Thistle Whistle co-owner Mark Waltermire became interested in beekeeping in 1990 while living in Missoula, Mont., after Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, a noted beekeeper and a leading researcher in the science of beekeeping, asked for permission to set up a hive at his non-profit farm.

"I've had them ever since," says Waltermire, who along with beekeeper Steve Ziemer, and Chris Williams, a third-generation professional beekeeper and owner of San Juan Apiaries and San Juan Honey Company out of Cedardege, led the workshop. The three beekeepers offered different perspectives on beekeeping and led discussions on its many complexities. They also gave demonstrations on what goes into a productive beehive.

At the core of the discussion was the challenges beekeepers face in the wake of recent declines in honeybee populations. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "You could hardly kill bees," said Williams. Today, beekeepers are struggling to keep their bees alive. A recent survey suggests that between 2015 and 2016, the nation lost 44 percent of its honeybee colonies. The three beekeepers all said that this past winter was particularly hard on their bees.

Colorado's overall honeybee population has declined in recent decades. According to Theobald, at the start of the 20th century "there were 85,000 colonies of bees in Colorado -- a high point that would never be reached again -- and honey production had become a major agricultural industry."

In 2013 commercial beekeepers produced 1,118,000 pounds of honey (a gallon weighs approximately 12 pounds) valued at $2,348,000. That's down from a 10-year high of 2,700,000 pounds in 2006. According to the Colorado Division of Planning's "1959-1961 Year Book," in 1960, 65,000 colonies produced 3,055,000 pounds of honey and 61,000 pounds of beeswax; 20 years earlier, in 1945, the state hit a peak in the number of hives at 75,000, producing 6,075,000 pounds of honey valued at $677,000, or roughly $9.18 billion in today's dollars.

So what's causing declines? Pesticides, mites, diseases and changes in weather patterns are all believed to be factors in the losses. Bees can be breed for mite resistance, said Waltermire, but mites also are disease-vectors. Because viruses can evolve, he said, the mites themselves are possibly less damaging to bees in the long run.

Waltermire said the recent heavy losses make him question all he knows about bees and beekeeping.

One problem facing bees is starvation. Bees winter on honey they stored up during the warm months. When spring-like weather occurs in January or February, the bees think it's springtime and start foraging for food. Since dandelions and other spring flowers haven't yet started to blossom, there's nothing to eat. The bees burn calories and consume more of their winter storage of food, and when that runs out, they starve.

Williams said honeybees can be manually fed with either honey or a syrup made of white sugar, but that can eat away at profits.

Ziemer is concerned about his bees and about the wild pollinators. He tends about 20 hives on his Rogers Mesa farm and started keeping bees about eight years ago while living in Golden. In late spring, he said, he went for a bike ride. As he admired all of the flowers in bloom, he realized something was missing. "There were no bees," he said.

He decided to take up beekeeping. He joined the Denver Bee Club and began attending forums, watching documentaries, and learning all he could about bees. He started with one hive, and by his third year was up to seven.

Five years ago he and wife Anne purchased a small farm on Rogers Mesa, and named it "Immunity Farms," in honor of the health benefits of honey. "A lot of people treat it as medicine," said Ziemer. Raw honey can help build immunities to allergies and reduce hay fever symptoms. Honey also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and contains numerous enzymes shown to have health benefits. The healthiest honey hasn't been heated or strained, and customers often request that he doesn't filter his honey, even if little bee parts are left in it.

The Ziemers grow five varieties of raspberries, two varieties of blackberries and recently planted 120 heritage apple trees. They also plant some 500 heirloom pepper plants every year. Ziemer, a member of the Valley Organic Growers Association, sells his products, including raw honey and fresh and roasted peppers, at the Hotchkiss Farmers Market. "Have you ever tried a 'chervena chushka,'?" asks Ziemer, who brings his chili roaster to market, filling the air with the smoky smell of a fall day in southern New Mexico.

Ziemer is committed to raising his crops and his bees organically, but it hasn't been easy, he says. "Organic makes it 10 times more difficult." What really puzzles him is that his bees did better in Golden than they have on Rogers Mesa.

Ziemer has obtained grant money to create habitat for the area's wild pollinators, including bumble bees, moths, butterflies, birds and beetles. With the help of a USDA wildlife habitat grant, he installed a pivot watering system. For the past three years he has planted beneficial native wildflowers like blue flax and burnet that provide food for both domesticated honeybees and native pollinators. The mix of plants allows for at least three flowering species in each of the three warmer seasons. He also grows grass and alfalfa for livestock feed and plants bunch grasses that provide nesting habitat for wild bees.

Ziemer encourages others to consider raising their own bees. There are a lot of factors to consider, including cost. Getting started can cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The cost for basic equipment, including the hive, tools, and the bees, can cost upwards of $400-$500 if purchased new. For those wanting to extract their honey mechanically, extractors can cost thousands of dollars.

With the growth in urban beekeeping, farm and home supply stores are now stocking beekeeping equipment, as well as instruction manuals and other educational materials.

Bee packages, including a queen, can be purchased for about $80-$100 and up, and can be shipped through the mail.

For those seriously considering making the investment, Ziemer recommends that people do their homework, and start small with one or two hives. The best time to start, he said, is now.

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