Organizations, businesses and educational venues are gearing up to celebrate pollinator awareness week in Colorado and around the nation June 17-23.
Pollination is critical to such a large array of fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts that it is said to play a role in one out of every three bites of food the average American eats.
According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the state is home to a diverse population of pollinators that includes 946 species of native bees, 250 species of butterflies, more than 1,000 species of moths and 11 species of migrating hummingbirds.
Still, honeybees tend to get the most attention.
All of that promotion and publicity can be a double-edged sword, according to Lazarus Fields, owner of Fields of Natural Honey in Colorado Springs.
“I think it can be a catch-22,” said Fields, who maintains 50 hives of his own and also serves as “swarm coordinator” for the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association, which involves overseeing bee removal and relocation around the area.
“People are motivated to keep bees because they want to be part of the solution, but sometimes that can be part of the problem,” he said inside a booth where he was selling honey. “Especially if they are not maintaining the hives properly or don’t really know what they’re doing yet, for example not treating for mites.
"When weakened hives get robbed, the bees take the mites with them to their own hives, unfortunately. So it has a negative influence on other bee colonies and beekeepers around them.”
Rebecca Sunderlin, of Fountain, is president of the Pikes Peak Beekeepers. She said bees easily range over five miles or more, which means problems do spread.
Though the group runs a comprehensive beekeeping school at least once a year, people often buy hives and start looking for bees before getting any training.
“We get calls all the time from people who say they just bought a hive and want to know where they can get bees,” she said. “In addition to our school, there are other places that offer education, and we try to point them to where they can at least take a shorter introductory class. And we always recommend they hook up with the local bee club because then they’ll have mentors.”
Nationwide the number of managed hives has been on a long, slow decline, going from 6 million in 1947 to 2.67 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But in recent years, interest in hobbyist beekeeping has taken off.
“We usually have anywhere from 75 to 150 students a year at our school,” Sunderlin said. “Over the last few years, our membership has leveled out in the low 400s.”
More municipalities across Colorado are passing ordinances that allow backyard beekeeping. The city of Colorado Springs recently changed its housing code to permit two hives per yard instead of one, which Sunderlin said is helpful when beekeepers need to re-queen a hive.
The popularity of local honey might be one factor boosting interest among small beekeepers.
“Even with all the beekeepers we’re adding, there’s still more demand for local honey than we can supply,” she said.
Sunderlin keeps ten hives that each produce around 35 pounds of honey annually. Even so, she gets requests for ten times more than that, she estimated.
“The market is definitely not saturated,” she said.
But simply having bees in the news is probably another factor that attracts hobbyists, she said.
One often repeated idea in beekeeping circles holds that bees won’t be saved by one beekeeper with 6,000 hives, but by 6,000 beekeepers who each have one hive, she said.
There’s probably a lot of truth to that, because diversity helps spread risk, she noted.
Still, having knowledgeable beekeepers who know how to keep their bee populations healthy is critical to giving all bees a better chance to survive when bad weather hits, both Sunderlin and Fields say.
The past year has been particularly tough for Southern Colorado’s beekeepers.
“This was one of the worst winter die-offs I’ve seen since I started beekeeping 11 years ago,” Fields said. “I personally had a 20 percent loss but I’ve heard of others who lost up to 40 percent of their colonies.”
Fields sells honey mostly online and through a couple of local outlets, including the Garden of the Gods RV Resort — where he keeps a few hives — and at Eagle’s Nest Pottery Barn in Security.
“It affects the honey crop, bee sales and everyone's hive numbers,” he explained.
Sunderlin said it reminded her of a winter seven years ago when many of the feral colonies were wiped out.
“This past year winter came on gradually, and we had a long autumn and warmish winter at the beginning. When it is warm, the bees are using more honey,” she said. “Whatever nectar they’ve collected has to take them through to the spring. Around February and March they start to starve out, and we had a late spring. The dandelions didn’t start popping out until two weeks later than usual.”
No one can control the weather, but Sunderlin said all of the pollinator awareness efforts do seem to be producing some benefit. More farmers, for example, are aware of the need to reduce pollinator loss, and resources like DriftWatch.org enhance communication between farmers, specialty growers and beekeepers.
“In places where there can be friction, I see a lot of people talking together, saying when you spray let me know, and I’ll cover up my bees,” she said. “I have bees on alfalfa fields, and that’s the kind of relationship I have. I think there’s more cooperation happening than there used to be.”
At the recent Colorado State Beekeepers Association “Summer Bee College” in Rifle, which Sunderlin attended, keynote speaker Jonathan Lundgren inspired many with his presentation on the regenerative agriculture movement.
Lundgren, an agro-ecologist and CEO of Blue Dasher Farm, a research and demonstration farm in South Dakota, speaks frequently to conservation and no-till farming groups on the importance of improving soil health, enhancing biodiversity and producing more nutrient dense food.
In particular, he spoke about the potential to transform the California almond industry, which requires more than half of all U.S. honeybees to fulfill its pollinator contracts. Many of those bees are trucked long distances, which is believed to put additional stress on them.
“His point was, if we can start impacting large crops like almonds (with conservation farming), what a beautiful thing that would be," Sunderlin said. "So it’s not all doom and gloom. If we are willing to have a voice, there are ways to improve the situation.”
SEVERAL POLLINATOR WEEK EVENTS SCHEDULED
Several events are planned across Colorado during National Pollinator Week, which runs June 17-23.
The Butterfly Pavilion at Chatfield Farms in Denver will host an evening of family friendly activities on June 21, including a free outdoor showing of Bee Movie.
At 10 a.m., on June 22, the High Prairie Library in Falcon will present on class on pollinators and pollinator-friendly landscaping, led by permaculture expert Becky Elder, of Manitou Springs.
In addition to offering many other educational resources, Colorado State University has a pollinator-friendly garden on the main campus in Fort Collins, designed in the fall of 2017, which features popular plants for attracting pollinators, such as verbena, English lavender and bee balm.
Chris Starkus, executive chef at Urban Farmer Steakhouse in downtown Denver and an avid beekeeper himself, helped coordinate several pollinator-related activities at the restaurant during the week.
Starkus is currently working to earn Master Bee Keeping Certification, a three-year endeavor requiring multiple hours of research, as well as looking after Urban Farmer’s rooftop bees and hives.
Aiming to protect bee biodiversity in the U.S. and improve the public's environmental knowledge, The Honeybee Conservancy has partnered with 10 beekeeping organizations nationwide to launch a project it is calling BeeBlitz.
BeeBlitz will include a nationwide series of events, inviting citizens to gather and document the diversity of bee species in their local areas. The BeeBlitz kickoff event will be held June 22 on Governors Island, a 172-acre island in New York Harbor that has been transformed from an abandoned former military base into a model of sustainable design and resiliency.
Colorado Springs is listed as one of the cities that will participate in BeeBlitz. More info is available at thehoneybeeconservancy.org/beeblitz/.