Inside the local beekeeping business
Ryan Summerlin July 1, 2013
There was a time when honeybees were better-known for their integral part in nature. Whether this was pollinating the natural land, fruit or vegetable crops, they were welcomed and appreciated.
From a garden-design aspect, flowers always looked more natural when planted in “drifts.” This week, my understanding for this was deepened. I learned even more about honeybees and their huge importance.
While gathering nectar, bees prefer to stop for groups of flowers. It is not efficient to land for one flower, especially when their flights often cover two miles. The plant drifts will continue to thrive naturally by receiving the benefit of regular pollinations.
This week, I met with two local beekeepers, Wild Bear Bee Farm and Brook LeVan (co-founder of Sustainable Settings in Carbondale). From them, I learned more than ever could be put in one simple story.
Chris Stoner and her daughter, Cheyenne, sell from the Wild Bear Bee Farm Honey booth at the Aspen and Basalt farmers markets (and Roxy’s). This is a family operation in which the girls do the marketing, bottling and labeling. Stoner’s husband, Todd, with their son, Colton, manages all the work with the hives. Their contact email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
They have six hive locations in Emma, Basalt, Snowmass, Woody Creek and Aspen. All sites are chosen because of the naturally healthy vegetation (no chemicals) and access to lots of fresh water. The relationship with the farmers and ranchers is mutually beneficial with a season-ending bonus of honey harvested from their land.
Each location has honey that is unique in color depth and flavor. For example, the pollen color in Snowmass can be almost purple because of the abundance of alfalfa and thistle at the end of the summer. Every jar says precisely where it was harvested.
The seasonal life of bees is busy. Winter begins around November with a nighttime netting of the hive and loading it on a flatbed. With the highest elevations first, the Stoners head down to a ranch in Debeque. All of their hives are able to spend a milder winter there but remain close enough for Todd to inspect weekly for food and health. A surrounding electric fence, powered by solar, maintains protection from predators.
Once winter is over, their hives go for another night ride, this time upvalley to Glenwood Springs. Depending on the season, this usually happens in May. Here, the hives are staged to begin acclimating to spring flowers and the rising temperatures. Then, slowly, the hives are set up again, starting in Emma and ending in Aspen. Each location, of about 15 to 20 hives, now becomes a “yard” with the grass mowed. This prevents interference with the surrounding solar-powered fence wire.
The bees’ season for honey production is now in full operation. Todd’s weekly monitoring of the hives for health and growth is vigilant. As the hive builds in size, it has to be provided more space, or the bees will swarm. Simply put, they leave and look for a new home site. To keep them in place, “supers” are stacked on top. It is like adding more floors to a house. With more space, the bees keep building more comb and filling the chambers up with honey.
Around the end of July, the first top layers of “supers” are removed for honey extraction and bottling. The bottom two boxes are never taken as these are for the bees. Each season produces anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds of honey from an average of 100 hives. Weather influences the amount, as flowers will not have as much nectar during a drought.
A few bee facts: The queen mates one time (but it is a very big party at 5,000 feet). She produces an average of 2,000 eggs a day over her lifespan, which is as long as 21/2 years. Her attending nurse bees serve her the precious royal jelly. The drones are the only males, and the majority of bees in a hive are workers. Yes, those would be the females.
There are two main beekeeping hive styles: “top bar” style, as seen at Sustainable Settings, and the Langstrom style of stacking boxes, used by Wild Bear Bee Farm.
Colony collapse disorder is where whole colonies die. This is believed to be partly due to the use of herbicides and pesticides.
Sustainable Settings offers outstanding classes on beekeeping; contact Brook LeVan at email@example.com. If you locate a swarm, email Brook and ask about the “swarm waiting list.’’
Over the Fourth of July, add local honey to your picnic recipes and enjoy all the beautiful Colorado flowers. Next week, we will share the many ways other local food products are easily available to you.
Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, visit www.farmsfinest.com or follow her on Twitter. Connect at firstname.lastname@example.org.