Beekeeper numbers buzzing as hobby, benefit to community
She was a study in “if at first you don’t succeed…” with her repeated passes at the hive. Flying in looping, dizzy figure-eights, the heave-ho of her efforts was almost audible.
Maybe this time? Aiming for a small opening at the bottom of a wall in her wooden hive, she flew a wobbling, jerky path toward her goal. Oh, nope, nope, she missed. Try again. Wings a blur, she circled around and, with more modest ambition, headed instead for the ledge in front of the opening. Come on, come on. You can do it.
“She’s really weighed down with pollen,” observed Lynda Wonders, noting the vivid golden grains clinging to the bee’s legs. The bee, burdened as she was with a precious cargo that would provide protein for the hive’s larvae, made yet another charge at the hive and finally landed on the ledge. Relief! She scuttled to the opening, disappearing into the warm, buzzing dark of her home.
Taken as a whole, as a unique living organism, a beehive is almost overwhelming — a thing of tens of thousands of bees living and working together; of sudden swarms; of life and death and a treasure trove of honey. But it’s also a thing of tiny moments, of individual bees landing in fragrant blossoms and flying home bearing a prize of nectar and pollen.
“I could sit and watch the hive for hours,” Wonders said, and, since becoming a beekeeper last year, she occasionally has. It’s an endless fascination, a hobby that grew from two original hives in her Orchard Mesa backyard to 10 more hives placed at “foster homes” around the Grand Valley. Next year, she wants to double the number of beehives she keeps.
Wonders is among a growing number of backyard beekeepers, hobbyists who keep hives for the bounty of honey, for the beeswax and royal jelly, for the pleasure of watching nature in action and for the environmental benefit — when a hive is healthy and productive, everybody wins, said Gary McCallister, a professor of biology at Mesa State College and a longtime beekeeper. A healthy hive means bees are pollinating, which means that in the radius around the hive, the flowers are nicer and the fruits and vegetables are better.
“There seems to be a lot of interest in beekeeping right now,” he said. “Maybe it’s because of an interest in the fate of bees — the threat to pollination, or colony collapse disorder has gotten people concerned and maybe interested.
“I just have a feeling that the Western Slope should be the center of beekeeping in Colorado. The eastern plains have grains, which don’t need bees for pollination, but 98 fruits and vegetables are grown over here, and all of them of course require bees.”
Dick Nunamaker, who was a bee researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than 20 years and who did his doctoral studies on Africanized bees, said he thinks the increased interest in beekeeping is part of a growing movement toward sustainability, “the whole natural movement of eating locally and organically, knowing where your food comes from, understanding the cycle of production,” he said. “If you want pickles, you have to have bees.”
Though there are no exact figures for the number of beekeepers in Mesa County or on the Western Slope, Curtis Swift, an extension agent with the Tri River Area Colorado State University Extension, said the total is growing.
At the inaugural meeting of the Western Colorado Beekeepers Association in March, 45 people attended, a much larger number than expected, McCallister said.
The increased interest by educated hobbyists can only benefit U.S. agriculture, Nunamaker said.
In 2006, colony collapse disorder killed 32 percent of all bees in the United States, when normal hive mortality is 10 percent or less, he said. The following year, 34 percent of all bees died, and by 2009 the total jumped to 36 percent.
“If we lost 30 percent of our cattle, that would be a huge thing,” Nunamaker said. “But bee losses don’t have the same sort of impact, though they should.”
A four-year Cornell University study found that bee pollination enhances U.S. crop value by almost $15 billion per year through increased plant yield and higher quality fruits and vegetables. And the list of plants at least partially dependent on bee pollination is staggering: strawberries and cucumbers, figs and soybeans, peanuts, celery, broccoli, onions, asparagus, peaches and dozens more.
Almonds are 100 percent dependent on bee pollination, and last year almond production was a $1.1 billion industry in the United States. Almonds are grown in California, which has about 400,000 beehives but needs 1.5 million to pollinate all the almonds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To make up the difference, California growers hire beekeepers from around the country — including several from western Colorado — to bring their bees to California in February and pollinate the almonds.
So, bee losses are extremely serious, Nunamaker said, especially because, while theories abound, nobody yet has proved what causes colony collapse disorder.
“The more people who are interested in beekeeping, the more we all benefit,” Nunamaker said.
Plus, he added, it’s a fascinating hobby. While bees suffered a major public relations setback in the 1980s, when reports of aggressive Africanized bees led to stories about swarms of killer bees headed to the United States from South America, bees seem to be enjoying a popular resurgence, Swift said.
“I think some people are just always going to be afraid of bees,” McCallister said. “But I think more people are looking into beekeeping and getting educated and starting to think about it as a hobby.”
Wonders became interested after reading Sue Hubbell’s “A Book of Bees,” a memoir of Hubbell’s experiences managing 300 hives in the Ozark Mountains.
“It brought to my attention the rapid decline of the bee population and how we’ll all be affected by that,” Wonders said.
She has a friend who loves bees, so with a little coaxing, Wonders ordered basic supplies and set up two hives. And she’s allergic to bees.
“The first year, I was terrified of being stung,” she recalled, laughing. “And I did finally get stung this spring, but I didn’t have to do the (EpiPen) shot. I think it’s because I’m really gentle with the bees and I don’t try to rush.”
Starting with books she checked out of the library, Wonders said she mostly has learned beekeeping through practical experience. When she opened a hive earlier this year and thought it was dying, a beekeeping mentor told her the hive just had mold, an easily solved problem.
She’s learned how to temporarily confuse the bees with smoke so she can check each layer of the hive before the bees get too agitated. And she’s learned to appreciate the particular reverie found in watching the bees: She’s seen workers take the bodies of dead bees from the hive and give them a water burial in the ditch; she’s seen worker bees fight off invaders; she’s seen the queen at work; she’s seen drones kicked out of the hive when they’re no longer useful.
“Beekeeping is kind of a lonely thing, but it’s a peaceful thing,” McCallister said. “I think because you have to be so focused on what you’re doing that you can’t hurry, you can’t think about anything else, and it really calms your mind.”
McCallister introduced his grandkids, Gary and Shanae Honda, 14 and 12, to beekeeping, and now they take care of his hives, which are spread around the Grand Valley, when he’s out of town.
“I like to see how the hive works,” Gary Honda said, adding that he’s helped his grandfather collect bee swarms from high in trees, which they then introduced to a man-made hive. In fact, added G.J. Honda, Gary’s mom and McCallister’s daughter, she and the kids recently were at Home Depot and spotted a bee swarm in the parking lot, so they rushed inside to ask the manager if they could have it. Unfortunately, another beekeeper had already claimed it.
“Beekeepers are the only people who get excited about seeing a swarm of bees,” G.J. Honda said, laughing. “Everybody else runs away.”
“There’s a huge amount of misinformation about bees,” McCallister said. “Because we are no longer an agrarian society, what people know about bees is that they sting. If something black and yellow stings, it gets called a bee, though it probably was a hornet.”
Wonders said as she’s placed her hives around the Grand Valley, she has received more questions about them and has met more people who say they’d like to try beekeeping.
This year, she started a Facebook group to find people who would let her put a hive on their property or in their yard. She told people she’d take care of the hives if they’d serve as “foster families,” and 10 people agreed. Two of those foster families, she said, now plan to start hives of their own next spring.
Because the city of Grand Junction doesn’t prohibit keeping beehives within city limits, Wonders said she was able to place several hives downtown, “and they’re doing the best,” she said. “It’s surprising, but I think it’s because there are so many plants and flowers downtown, so the bees are just really thriving.”
Like many beekeepers, she offers honey as thanks for people letting her keep her bees on their property, a delicious and fair exchange.
The increasing numbers of people growing lavender on the Western Slope also means even better honey, Swift said, because lavender honey is especially popular for its flavor.
“I think people are seeing that bees need to be taken care of just like any pet,” Swift said. “They need to be fed in winter, you have to maintain good sanitation for them, give them fresh water if that isn’t already available. They do require care, but it’s not overwhelming, and I think that’s why we’re seeing this increased interest.”
With proper care, the bees know what to do. They know to build their combs and lay their eggs, to go get the pollen and make the honey. And beekeepers, always, get to see it happen.