The buzz about beekeeping

Hobby takes hold across Denver metro area and beyond

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Beekeeping has seen its popularity grow in many places across the country in recent years, and the Denver metro area is no exception. 

From community gardens to backyard hives, more and more people are keeping honey bees and often selling the luscious, golden liquid reward that comes from this hip hobby. 

Honey bees have become the main beneficiaries of the “save the bees” movement. According to researchers, there are around 25,000 different types of bees, but for obvious reasons, the honey bee is the most beneficial for hobbyists to raise. Not native to North America, honey bees came to the continent with the earliest European immigrants.

In recent years, a cottage industry has sprung up around honey bees, with several full-service shops in the Denver area offering nascent beekeepers with all of the supplies and advice they would need to start managing their own hives.

But first, new beekeepers might want to consult one of the many educational organizations that exist locally.

The Denver Bee and the Mile High Bee clubs provide support and education to the Front Range beekeeping community, and the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster offers a Beekeeping Bootcamp, a program with sessions running throughout the year. People can sign up for the whole series or attend individual classes. 

Biologist Lorna McCallister manages the Butterfly Pavilion’s hives and serves as the Beekeeping Bootcamp instructor. She said spreading out the course over five sessions allows her to guide students through the entire beekeeping process.

She said the pavilion also has five apiaries — collections of beehives — in community gardens across the metro area. They serve as great educational tools while also helping pollination around the Denver area. Beekeeping Bootcamp is certified through the Colorado Beekeepers Association, which McCallister said allows students who complete the course to become an apprentice beekeeper if they wish to take their hobby to the next level.

Those interested in the program still have time to join. McCallister said the first class was archived, so catching up via video would be easy and the live bees used in upcoming courses won’t actually be delivered until the end of April.

“Beekeeping is really big in Colorado — especially around Denver,” McCallister said.

In fact, beekeeping has become so popular that some cities have gotten involved.

Susan Bennett is an environmental interpreter for the City of Wheat Ridge and resident bee expert at Happiness Gardens, a community resource that allows gardening enthusiasts to register for full- or half-sized plots to grow fruits, vegetables and flowers. As a “science nerd,” Bennett said she loves practically everything about the buzzing insects.

Some conservationists have recently begun questioning whether the proliferation of honey bees might in fact be harmful to native bee populations that have to compete for resources with an ever-increasing honey bee population. 

Bennett said there are many scientific papers on the subject, and she’s keeping an eye on them to see what is ultimately discovered. But for now, she thinks adhering to best practices can go a long way to benefitting all pollinators. She said if people are interested in bees, the best thing they can do is plant a native garden that includes plant varieties that will flower through as much of the season as possible.

“If you do something to support the honey bees, it’s probably going to support the native bees too,” Bennett said. “Because the things that you’re going to be doing for honey bees — planting more plants that have a variety of blooming times, reducing your use of pesticides — those things are going to help all of the pollinators.”

She advises people to be aware of pests, such as the varroa destructor mite, which can have a devastating effect on the honey bee population. Another way to be a good steward of the ecosystem is to make sure diseases don’t transfer over to the native bee population.

For those who want to participate in the process of contributing to pollination and getting their own supply of honey without the work, fear not. There’s a way to get in on the experience of owning a hive without risking the stings or undertaking the learning curve.

Best Bees is a company with professional beekeepers who will come to a person's home or office, do the work for them to set up a hive and let them keep the honey. Noah Wilson-Rich founded the company while pursuing his doctorate in honey bee immunology, and Best Bees now operates in the Denver metro area as well as more than a dozen other cities across the U.S. The company employs more than 50 professional beekeepers who manage hives for corporate and residential clients.  

Wilson-Rich said the colony collapse phenomenon that occurred around 2006 raised awareness about the plight of bees.

“By having this beekeeping service that’s connected to research, we’re able to make maps of people’s home gardens, beehives and rooftop beehives in downtown Denver and Boulder and say 'OK, where are hot spots for bee health? Where are bees doing really well?" Wilson-Rich said. "And then ask why? Why is that? What flowers are around there? What’s the pesticide use? What diseases are we seeing? So, it’s been a really fun approach. We call it citizen science.”

Wilson-Rich said the data his company collects is helpful in several ways. One is connected to NASA’s Earth observation program that utilizes satellites aimed at Earth to collect information about things like weather patterns and land use. The partnership allows Best Bees to use that data to create maps that factor in things like climate change in relation to the health of their clients’ hive health. 

Best Bees also recently launched The Urban Beekeeping Lab, a nonprofit that uses genomics — think 23andMe — to further its mission to improve bee health.

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