To bee or not to be | SteamboatToday.com

To bee or not to be

Complex social structure of honey bees is attracting a swarm of new beekeepers in Routt County

— If the human residents of the Yampa Valley think the wintry spring of 2016 has tested their fortitude, perhaps they should stop feeling sorry for themselves and think about the plight of the honey bees.

While bees in Grand Junction are busy in the peach orchards by early April, bees in Steamboat Springs spent much of April balled up inside their hives to keep her majesty, the queen, warm. In the meantime, they subsisted on leftover honey from 2015, a little sugar water spritzed on their combs and the protein from the pollen patties the beekeeper slipped inside the hive from time to time.

May has finally arrived with milder temperatures just in time to allow local worker bees to build new cells so the queen can lay fertilized eggs at the astounding rate of 1,500 to 2,000 a day — building the next generation in this intensely matriarchal society, which humans have harnessed to do their bidding since medieval times when mead, made from fermented honey, was the nectar of kings.

Cold-blooded honey bees are inactive at temperatures below 45 degrees and wait out the winter in the hive, relying upon a couple of bizarre physical adaptions to keep the queen on her throne. The worker bees clump around the queen bee, vibrate their abdomens to make heat and even detach the musculature from their wings, vibrating those muscles to bring their own body temperatures up to 111 degrees.

Beginners – don't count on harvesting honey your first year

If start-up beekeepers undertook their new avocation in late April with a pair of three-pound bee packages from Apis Hive and Honey Company in Grand Junction, they would have received 6,000 to 10,000 female worker bees and a queen in each package.

Introduced to a hive where the beekeeping frames are imprinted with hexagonal patterns conducive to building comb and liberally sprayed with sugar water, the worker bees will begin aggressively building waxy comb to create cells where, upon mating with drones (male bees) from outside the hive, the queen will begin to lay eggs, which quickly turn into larvae and hatch within 21 days.

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In order to really be in honey production, a beekeeper needs 40,000 to 60,000 bees, according to Greg McMahon of To Bee or Not to Bee in Lakewood.

Colorado Mountain College biology professors Tina Evans and Becky Edmiston, who sponsor the school's beekeeping club at the college’s Alpine campus in Steamboat, had the opportunity last month to demonstrate to their students how honeybees can cycle their activities on and off through the wild temperature swings of April in the Rocky Mountains.

But the long Routt County winters take their toll.

Local beekeeper Cedar Beauregard said he's working with Elkstone Farms in Strawberry Park to develop a hardy, local strain of bees better adapted to stand up to the valley's long winters. Instead of pampering the bees with supplemental sugar water and pollen, he said he intends to cull out the weak and breed the survivors to flourish here.

Commercial beekeeper Pat Shalks, of Bear River Apiary based in Milner, takes a far different approach. He sent more than a thousand hives to the almond groves south of Fresno, California, for the heart of winter where they are in high demand to pollinate the flowering trees.

The bees are trucked to California where almond growers pay him an average of $175 a hive to have them perform the essential task of cross-pollination. But Shalks has expenses, too.

"My focus is on having 1,600 hives to send to California in the fall, but some of my hives die every year," Shalks said. "I'm down to 1,200 or 1,300 right now."

In order to re-build the number of hives he keeps, Shalks splits the stronger hives, which requires purchasing new queen bees to begin laying new eggs. And that costs money too.

"My spring bills will be about $50,000," he said. "I just ordered new queens (at $20 to $25 a pop). I'll spend $13,000 to $15,000 on queens this spring."

Beekeeping on the rise

Anecdotally, the number of beekeepers tending hives in Routt County is growing rapidly. Honey has a remarkable shelf-life, increasing its appeal to locavores, and the complexity of the social structure of bees makes them a hobby that few grow tired of.

"I love playing with bees to test out theories," Beauregard said at a recent meeting of the Routt County Beekeeping Association. "It's just fun."

David Truly, who with his wife, Christy, has been keeping bees at Truly Family Farm in the South Valley for three years, joked that he feels like he couldn't give up honey if he wanted to.

"Hi, I'm David, and I'm an addict. I'm addicted to beekeeping," he teased the members of the bee club during a February speaking engagement. "Bees are crazy addicting. It's as much an art as a science."

Greg McMahan, of To Bee or Not to Bee in Lakewood, promised 17 people attending an introduction to beekeeping class at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat on April 25 they would never become bored with bees.

"After four or five years, you'll still be learning," McMahan said. "Every year, your hive will be different. That's what makes beekeeping so great. You're always learning."

Pollinators in peril

However, in North America and the world over, where pollinators are declining to an alarming degree, every hive of honey bees matters. And it's not just honey bees.

A report on the findings of the global Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) determined that about 40 percent of pollinating insects — especially bees and butterflies — are currently threatened with extinction, and 16.5 percent of bird and mammal pollinators, which includes bats and monkeys, are in the same dire circumstances.

In a report in Audubon Magazine in March, IPBES emphasized that the loss of threatened pollinators would undermine 75 percent of food crops, including fruits, that rely on animals to be pollinated.

Emblematic of the reliance on pollinators is the California almond industry, which relies upon 1.6 million honey bee colonies to cross-pollinate different species of almonds each spring, according to California Almonds.

The hives being imported to the San Joaquin Valley come from states as far away as Florida, and naturally, from Western Colorado.

Realistically, the Yampa Valley honey bees waiting to harvest the nectar have bigger problems to deal with than a cold Rocky Mountain spring and the awakening of black bears who want to gorge on their larvae. (It's a myth that bears raid beehives to gorge on honey.)

"Bears don't eat honey. Bears eat brood," McMahan said. "They eat the (bee) larvae for the protein. They'll open a hive, eat all the larvae and leave the honey sitting there."

The ubiquitous varroa mites, which transport diseases to bees the way ticks do to humans, and a class of persistent pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are absorbed into flowering plants and weeds like the bees' favorite thistles, are believed by many to bring disaster to the hives, although science hasn't completely confirmed it.

Some beekeepers are convinced that neonicotinoids sap the strength of bees and their resistance to disease, accounting for the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.

Pollen power

While humans are focused on harvesting honey, the most precious commodity bees aggregate may be the protein rich pollen they bring back to the hive.

Anyone who has taken a close look at the hind legs of a honey bee on a flower has spied the thick golden load of pollen on their hind legs as they buzz about. But the pollen isn't an accidental result of bees brushing up against the stamens of a blossom.

Bees are hairy, while wasps and hornets are bald. The hair on a bee's body has a lot to do with gathering pollen.

“Bees generate a positive charge, and flowers have a negative charge," McMahan said. "Static electricity helps to attract pollen to a bee's body. The hairs on each leg push everything back to the pollen press — a hairy basket on the rear legs.”

Most of the pollen in a bee hive is stored by the worker bees in uncapped cells, signifying there is not brood — larvae — developing inside them.

"When you inspect your hive, pollen will almost always be in open cells," McMahan said. "Multiple colors (of pollen) signifies multiple sources of protein. That's what pollen is to bees — a super food. When bees are newly hatched, they go for the pollen. Ounce for ounce, bee pollen has more protein than anything in the world, and bees are protein addicts. That’s what bees need to survive the most."

Later, they become foragers, and they need carbohydrates. That's when they go for the honey.

Bee season in Routt County

Shalk's bees have spent spring break in the Grand Valley outside Palisade where the fruit crop needed pollinating. He treated them to a tanker truck of sugar syrup because the fruit orchards there can't provide enough blossoms to keep them in nectar.

But with warmer temperatures arriving in Northwest Colorado, Shalks and a friend planned to pack 96 hives in each of two pickup trucks to spread around Moffat County. And with his goal of re-building his hive count, there are never enough summer locations.

"I plan to hire a semi (truck) for a couple of loads," he said.

Beginning beekeepers would be wise to start with two bee packages, Truly said, to start up two different hives each comprising two boxes of frames that slide into the boxes like drawers. If one hive fails in the first year, the fledgling beekeeper won't be knocked back to square one.

The bees are introduced to a primary hive box where they go to work as soon as they sense there is a queen in residence. As they fill the initial box with comb for the queen to lay eggs in, their natural tendency is to expand upward into the second box, where they will deposit the honey they need to get through the winter. By late summer in Routt County, beekeepers may add a third, shallower box called a honey super to the top of the hive.

Any honey in the super at the end of summer is the beekeeper's to harvest, after leaving the hive with 80 pounds of honey to get through the winter. Sixty pounds of honey will fill a 5-gallon bucket.

And that's when beekeeping becomes a sweet proposition.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Beginners – don’t count on harvesting honey your first year

If start-up beekeepers undertook their new avocation in late April with a pair of three-pound bee packages from Apis Hive and Honey Company in Grand Junction, they would have received 6,000 to 10,000 female worker bees and a queen in each package.

Introduced to a hive where the beekeeping frames are imprinted with hexagonal patterns conducive to building comb and liberally sprayed with sugar water, the worker bees will begin aggressively building waxy comb to create cells where, upon mating with drones (male bees) from outside the hive, the queen will begin to lay eggs, which quickly turn into larvae and hatch within 21 days.

In order to really be in honey production, a beekeeper needs 40,000 to 60,000 bees, according to Greg McMahon of To Bee or Not to Bee in Lakewood.