Liquid gold

County becomes one of Colo.’s top honey producers

Keywords: Agriculture, Farms,
Tina Sebastian points out the circular pattern bees make their hives in even when in a rectangular frame. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Tina Sebastian points out the circular pattern bees make their hives in even when in a rectangular frame.

“Sit back and collect the honey, right?”

If only it were that simple.

But with some dedication, experience and preparation, beekeeping can actually get to that point. In fact, a type of agricultural environmental movement is taking place in southwest Colorado using honey bees.

Not only does it provide a nutritious food, beekeeping has become critical for pollinating crops that have suffered from a nationwide decline in honey bees.

Beginner beekeepers have been flocking to seminars in Cortez and Durango to learn how to raise hives for food and pollination services.

“I attribute the increase to people becoming concerned with their environment as we lose our natural pollinators,” Paula Nelson, president of the Four Corners Beekeeper Club, said during a recent beekeeping seminar in Cortez.

“There are just not as many feral bees anymore to pollinate the things we grow. Without bees, crops disappear.”

Montezuma County is ranked eighth in the state for hive production, harvesting 10,900 pounds of honey from 127 colonies on five farms, according to the most recent USDA census.

The beekeeping movement has become a natural partnership between the farmer and the honey producer.

“It is a symbiotic relationship, where my bees pollinate local farms and gardens, and I benefit from the honey as a result,” Nelson said. “A garden near a hive will go gangbusters.”

Pollination is also a business, with specialized beekeepers traveling to farms and orchards across the nation to set up hives for pollinating crops.

Cortez club forms

Locally, the Cortez Bee Club recently formed, an affiliate of the Four Corners Beekeeper Club. Organizer Curtis Pattillo is helping to lead the charge, and will be learning with everyone else.

“I’m starting out myself, and agreed to help form a local club. We’ve had a lot of interest and will be holding regular meetings,” he said. “Beekeeping can be done for pollination purposes or for honey production. It goes hand in hand with farming.”

There is a steep learning curve for beginners, so creating a local network where those with more experience can mentor the newcomers is important for success.

Reams of information on beekeeping are readily available on the Internet, and YouTube videos are especially helpful, Pattillo said.

Once hives are built or purchased, honey bees and the queen are ordered by mail — a 3-pound box containing 10,000 bees — and the fun begins. IFA in Cortez carry’s beekeeping equipment, including the protective suits.

Beekeepers rely on the nectar of surrounding flowers, plants, and trees for their bees to forage on and return to create honey-filled combs. An acre or more is an ideal amount of space.

Bees are coaxed to form the hive in boxes that separate the breeding chamber from the combs where honey is stored. The bees rapidly multiply, heading out to feed within a 3-mile radius and returning with nectar in their tiny stomachs that creates the honey.

“There is a lot of up-front labor getting the colony established the first few weeks and making the bees a home,” Pattillo said.

As the colony grows — from 10,000 bees to 50,000 bees in one summer — additional hive boxes are stacked up to provide more space for breeding chambers and honey production.

The hive will eventually grow too large and naturally form another colony. Beekeepers take advantage, watch for the cues (swarming) and then strategically split the hive. A new queen is added to the new colony and a new stack is started.

“Splitting a hive is tricky and is where a mentor is very helpful for beginners,” advised expert Tina Sebastian, during a recent class at Let It Grow Nursery.

Honey is harvested in the fall, with enough left in the hive for the bees to feed off through the winter. After one year, surplus honey is available and eventually one hive produces approximately 4 to 5 gallons of honey.

Harper said a challenge for beginners is keeping the bees alive through the winter.

“A common misconception is that bees hibernate. They do not, and stay awake all winter, forming a ball around the queen, creating a temperature of 91 degrees,” she said, adding that proper ventilation in the hive is key.

Let them be

Monitoring the bee hive is an art, too much and they get annoyed and stressed, not enough and several vexing problems can occur with hive formation.

“Once properly established, resist the urge to check all the time; you will make them hate you,” Sebastian said. “Check every other week, and no more than once every four days. Opening the boxes too often will lose the heat and scent they need.”

She demonstrated tricks of the trade. “No banging – they hate that. And don’t slowly brush them off screens – you’ll roll them and break their little legs. Instead, flip or shake them away, they don’t mind that.”

Turkey feathers work well to nudge them out of your way when maintaining the hive. Avoid used hive boxes. Sprinkling cinnamon deters ants, and electric fences spook bears away.

Of course, you can’t go too far the other way, either.

“Buying the bees, setting up a hive, then walking away has never worked,” Harper said.

A strange phenomenon called colony collapse is also a challenge for beekeepers. The bees don’t die; they just inexplicably abandon the hive, leaving their owners scratching their heads in disbelief.

“It happens, and there does not seem to be a pattern to it,” Harper said. “It’s been happening in Montrose and Lewis to one beekeeper but not a neighboring hive. It’s a mystery why it occurs.”

Chemical pesticides and honey bees don’t mix, and can cause serious systemic problems. Avoid spraying near hives, and coordinate with neighbors on the matter, advise beekeeping veterans.

Genetically modified seeds with pesticides engineered in are a suspect as well, and have been banned in some countries The uptake into the plant is thought to cause harm to the bee as it feeds off nectar.

A good market

Colorado has made selling honey easy, another encouraging aspect of the business.

“Honey falls under the Colorado Cottage Food Act, which allows it to be sold directly to the consumer without any licensing,” said Mellissa Mathews, environmental health specialist with the Montezuma County Health department.

Beekeepers can sell their honey at roadside stands, or at farmers markets. However, selling to a restaurant or grocery store would require a wholesalers license.

Beekeeping is more of commitment of labor and love than a huge financial investment. Start-up costs run between $800 and $1,000 for the boxes, proper clothing, specialized equipment, bees and queen. Jars of honey, selling at $1.70 a pound, or for trading for other goods, is the benefit.

“I’m fascinated by it,” said Pattillo, who is custom-building his hive boxes. “I’ll be ready when my bees arrive in spring. I’m looking forward to the experience.”

How to get involved

The Cortez Bee Club will hold a meeting on Saturday, March 29, beginning at noon, at Let it Grow Nursery in Cortez. All are welcome to attend and learn about beekeeping. To join the group or for more information contact Curtis by email at cortezbees@gmail.com

The Four Corners Beekeepers Association, will have their next meeting in Durango on Monday, March 17, at 6 p.m., and will meet the third Monday of each month this year. The meetings are held at the Florida Baptist Church near Elmore’s Corner, on Highway 160 east of Durango. For more information, call Paula at 970-903-1877.

Curtis Pattillo, of the newly formed Cortez Bee Club, demonstrates how one of his custom hives will work. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga

Curtis Pattillo, of the newly formed Cortez Bee Club, demonstrates how one of his custom hives will work.