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A journey with the bees: fall & winter.

There has been a dramatic rebirth of small-scale beekeeping in the past several years.

I say rebirth, but the fact is that beekeeping never died. It may have languished for a while, but we've had a continuous chain of bees and beekeepers stretching back to the dawn of agriculture. There's little doubt that our earliest ancestors would have exploited the honey bee from the beginning for its sweet treasure and endure a painful price, and in fact the rudimentary beekeeping of 10,000 years ago may have been one of the first hints of agriculture, our first tentative steps into husbandry.

What I propose is to take readers through a year of beekeeping. I recognize that I will likely be speaking (writing?) to a varied audience, from beginners to beekeepers of long experience, and I'll do my best to offer something of value or interest to all of you. When I talked about this project with my friend Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine, his comment "Hmm, you're going to do all this in a few thousand words?" It's a tall order, but I think we will have some fun along the way.

There's an old adage in beekeeping that if you ask five beekeepers the same question you will get six different answers. The details vary with the telling as to the number of beekeepers or the number of answers, but you get the idea. While you might not always get a variety of answers, the reason rests with beekeeping itself. One of the attractions to beekeeping for many of us is that it is an interesting blend of art and science; sometimes more art, sometimes more science, some of us are better at the science part, others at the art. The really good beekeepers have both sides mastered, and it can take years. Many aspects of beekeeping are open to interpretation and there may be wide variations, that's the art part, but often even the science may be controversial, as you will see in future articles.

So under the five beekeepers/six answers heading, let me give you a little of my beekeeping history so you know from whence I speak. I got into beekeeping when I was 32, I'd spent the first 10 years of my working life in the corporate world and I had decided that I just couldn't spend the rest of my life inside. I wasn't sure just what it was that I was going to do next, I had a wife and a young daughter so I had to figure something out, but I had a little money set aside and was going to just decompress for a while and see if anything turned up.

Within two months beekeeping entered the picture. We had a large garden and a colony of wasps that were nesting in one of our birdhouses that made me think of bees. I knew a little about bees, but not much. When I was a kid a neighbor had a small apple orchard and a few colonies of bees, but my involvement with bees consisted of going over to the man's orchard with a few of my little friends, picking a few green apples, pitching them at the hives then running, a picture in our little brains of an arrow of bees in hot pursuit, just like in the cartoons. In reality the bees probably didn't even notice our mischief and I've often looked back and wondered what course my life might have taken had that neighbor taken me aside and showed me the bees.

In the beginning I was just like many of the new beekeepers of today. I thought a colony or two to complement the garden would be all I wanted. While I was decompressing I could learn something new. Things quickly got out of hand.

I'm one of those people who likes to check things out before I leap, and I spent about two hours one August afternoon talking with ex-commercial beekeeper Ted Johnson and his wife. Both were nearing 90, they had kept bees together in a small commercial operation for more than 50 years; Ted was a shoemaker by trade.

I came away that afternoon with two things that would change the course of my life. The first was the clear impression that those two had spent their lives doing something they loved deeply. They spoke of their days of beekeeping with an unmistakable reverence, and I suspected that there was much more to this beekeeping thing than I had imagined. The second was the name of the man who had what remained of their operation. I called him that evening, offered my help in exchange for experience and worked with him through the honey harvest. That October I bought half of his colonies, 40 I think it was, and over the next several years took over the business and made it my own. I bought 25 packages the following spring (the start of new colonies, I'll have more to say about these in future articles) and by my first fall as a beekeeper I was up to 100 colonies.

I peaked at about 200 colonies, small by commercial standards, but I reasoned that with input from other sources I could create a viable business based on the sale of honey, and now here I am 39 years later having done it. It wasn't easy. It took sacrifices and compromises by the whole family, but we did it, it took lot of hard work and lots of risks, but it has been 39 interesting and rewarding years.

If it had bee in it, I did it. In 1975 I was one of the founders of the Boulder County Beekeepers' Association and served as their president for 30 years. I served two terms as vice president of the Colorado Beekeepers' Association, and I was the last County Bee Inspector in the State of Colorado, a position created in 1890 and finally retired in 2000.

For those of you who plan to follow along, those are my credentials. I don't have all the answers, in fact I'm still discovering some of the questions, but I've learned a few things along the way and I'll share some of what I've learned with the readers--a little science, a little art, a little history.

As I said at the beginning, there has been a significant increase in the popularity of beekeeping in the U.S., in part because of the publicity over the decline of bees. The first downturn came in the late 1980s when the parasitic varroa mite showed up in North America. The first identification was in 1987 or 1988 in Florida, but it wasn't long before it had spread across the country, I first found it here in Colorado in 1995. The varroa mite was devastating and we lost a lot of managed colonies and an estimated 90 percent of the feral colonies, those in hollow trees and the walls of buildings. We lost a lot of beekeepers in those first years with varroa too. Over time we began to come to terms with the varroa mite, but the losses continued, in fact escalated, and the beekeeping industry began to recognize that the varroa mite wasn't their only problem, that there had been some major changes in agricultural technology that were having an effect on the success or failure of their bees.

It was at this point that the problem of bee losses began to get increasing public attention and one of the results has been a growing interest in small-scale beekeeping, surprisingly not coming just from rural areas, but much of it from the suburbs and small acreages surrounding the cities. When we founded the Boulder County Beekeepers in 1975 we had 12 beekeepers at the first meeting. During the early years membership hovered around 25 or 30. Today we have more than 200 members and are growing.

I suppose I've had a hand in this. I've taught parts of an eight-week beginning beekeeping class for the past 13 years, but I'm amazed at the explosion of interest in hobby beekeeping. Many of those newcomers don't last long unfortunately. After a year or two of frustrations and disappointments they join the ranks of ex-beekeepers. A good portion of the rest will hang on for a few years, and from the multitude who start, a very few are hooked. They are the beekeepers of the future and they will likely be involved with bees in one way or another for the rest of their lives--like me.

My objective in this series of articles is to take readers through a year with the bees, a year of beekeeping, to share some of the things I've learned along the way with experienced beekeepers, but more importantly, to share this special world with those who know little about bees but who are curious, and those who think they might like to become beekeepers themselves.

By November most of the northern states are into winter, the bees have been prepared and aside from feeding light colonies there isn't too much to do with the bees but wait and hope. For those of you who think you want to be beekeepers this is the perfect time to start and I will tell you what I tell nearly every budding beekeeper who calls me--hit the books.

Most libraries, even small ones, have a good selection of books on beekeeping. There are a lot of recent books and old standbys, there has always been a strong current of writing in beekeeping and beekeepers have documented their craft from the beginning. Read as many of these as you have time for and before too long you will begin to get a good feel for what beekeeping requires and what your responsibilities will be. You will also be able to compare all the advice that is out there and sort the good advice from the bad.

Not everyone should be a beekeeper, as fascinating and rewarding as it can be, and the best time to find that out is before you start. If you have a budding beekeeper in your life, check out some of the bee books and put one or two under the tree at Christmas, or if the budding beekeeper is you, put some of the books on your letter to Santa.

When I started beekeeping I devoured just about every book on beekeeping that I could get my hands on, but I have to admit, I haven't kept up with most of the newer books, and there are a lot of them. I will recommend a few of the old standards and some newer ones for you to start with.

One of my favorite books, now long out of print, is The Joy of Beekeeping by Richard Taylor. This is the "why" rather than the "how" of beekeeping, a thoughtful and poetic look at bees and beekeeping. It should be the first book of every beekeeper and hopefully someone will bring it back into print again.

The Hive and the Honey Bee, first published in 1889, updating the original book by L.L. Langstroth published in 1853. (Available free from

The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping, first published in 1887 and updated periodically since. It is a wonderful book full of beekeeping advice both new and old and many of the entries that haven't been changed or rewritten are reminders of a much earlier time.

And finally, one modern one, a good one for newcomers to start with, The Backyard Beekeeper, by Kim Flottum. (Available from the Countryside Bookstore, pg. 80.)

In addition, in these days of the internet, there is a wealth of information out there--newsletters, blogs, beekeepers' associations and bee clubs, far too numerous to list, but a little exploration will turn them up.

To the hobbyists and beginners, do your homework because in the next article I want to get down to more of the nuts and bolts--why you should be a beekeeper, why not, and what you will need to get started. I'm looking forward to the journey and hope you are too.

Thinking OUTSIDE the (BEE) box

Since 1865, people have been keeping bees in "traditional" stacked boxes. The height of the Industrial Revolution in America sparked the mechanization of all kinds of things, including the beehive. The stacked box Langstroth design placed priority on honey production and became a key component to small farm agriculture. The box has not changed much since then, but agriculture sure has. Modern agriculture now consists of massive mono crop fields requiring billions of bees to be trucked in to pollinate during the few weeks of flowering. Chemical applications supply all the nutrients for the new seeds and have eliminated the need for bee-friendly cover crops that once revitalized the soil, so these thousands of truckloads of stacked boxed bees are having trouble finding good food in our fields. Couple that with new systemic toxins engineered into the crops called Neonicotinoids, and you have the reason for the massive bee die-off. Bees are struggling in the fields, sparking a need for urban bees and a new push to re-think beekeeping.

A new urban population wants to help bees and rediscover that ancient reverence for the bee, but not everyone can or wants to handle all the heavy lifting and work of stacked box design. It's also harder to find safe places to locate those hives in densely populated urban areas because of how many bees are disturbed during inspections. Ancient Greeks used Top Bar Hives (TBH) 2,500 years before this "traditional" box design. Today a number of small startups have started manufacturing these long, cradle-like TBH designs expressly for urban beekeeping., went a step further envisioning a new system that promotes education and a closer relationship with the colony. They teach natural "load balancing" techniques for keeping many hives healthy within a neighborhood using tools, display equipment, inspection forms and a Harvest Box for swarm catching, queen rearing and honey harvesting (storing honey bars in case the bees need them in winter). Beepods are even designed to work with stacked box hives.

Shepherding any beehive in the city, whether a stacked box or a top bar hive, can help the bee population thrive once again. Stacked box hives produce a lot of honey, are hard to work with, and need buffer space. Well-made top bar hives are safer and easier to use, contribute to bee population growth and pollination while giving medicines, education and some of the best honey because it's straight from the comb. It's all about choices and helping people think outside the box.

To learn more about natural beekeeping and Beepods, please contact us at or 608-728-8233.
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Title Annotation:The apiary
Author:Theobald, Tom
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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