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Beekeepers hope for some sweet relief

Tamie Meck
Staff Writer

The same drought causing crop failures and fires is stressing Colorado’s honeybees. Hives are producing very little honey this year, and consumer honey prices are on the rise.

“My bees have made no honey this summer,” said K Ware, a 25-year veteran beekeeper in Carbondale. She checks each of her seven hives every two weeks. In a normal year, each hive would hold about 50 pounds of honey by now. By summer’s end they can hold as much as 100 or more pounds of the sweet, sticky stuff. At last check, she lamented, her hives were empty. “The bees don’t even have enough for themselves,” she said.

Ware isn’t giving up. Last year she experienced a similar situation. Once the rains came, production picked up and she enjoyed a near-normal harvest.

Local commercial beekeepers are in a similar situation, but on a much larger scale.

Two such producers, Paul Limbach of Silt and Roy Rakich of New Castle, said that this summer looks bleak, at best, for business and for the bees.

“It’s not real good,” said Limbach, president of the Colorado Beekeepers Association. Limbach, who sells most of his honey to Ambrosia Honey in Rifle, has been raising bees commercially since 1976. This is his worst year yet, he said.

Limbach hesitated to guess just how many pounds of honey he’ll harvest this fall. He has about 2,400 hives, in Parachute, New Castle, Meeker, Hayden, Steamboat Springs and on the Flat Tops, that produce about 200,000 pounds of honey in a good year. “I’ll be lucky if I get half that,” he said.

Not all of his hives are faring poorly, he said. The ones located near irrigated alfalfa fields are fine.

“Silt Mesa looks real good right now,” he said.

When alfalfa fields start to dry out it can actually be good for production, since stressed alfalfa sends its energy into its blossoms, which produces a lot of nectar.

If the rains come, he said, “there’s still a good chance it will be a good year. It’s a little too early to tell.”

How much honey are Rakich’s bees producing this year?

“They’re not. Boy, I mean it’s terrible,” he said.

Rakich markets his honey under the name Glenwood Honey Farms. He manages about 1,200 hives mainly in the Colorado River Valley from New Castle to Orchard Mesa in Mesa County. In spring, he trucks his hives to northern California to pollinate almond crops.

Rakich said he’s heard similar stories from other local honey farmers.

Higher retail prices

All of this could spell higher retail prices for honey on store shelves.

Retail prices have risen as much as 20-30 percent in the past two years, said Craig Gerbore, president of Madhava Honey, which purchases Ambrosia’s honey. “It’s at an all-time high. It’s definitely a supply-and-demand situation.”

According to Paul Post of the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service in Denver, in 2001 there were 26,000 colonies in the state. Each colony yielded an average of 55 pounds of honey. While that may seem like a lot of honey, consider that in 1996 each colony produced 74 pounds. Since then, production has dropped steadily, to 72 pounds in 1998, and 60 pounds in 2000.

In 2001, honey producers received 62 cents per pound of honey. That’s down from 70 cents in 1996.

Will beekeepers recover?

It’s too soon to tell, said Jerry Cochran, former bee inspector for the Colorado Department of Agriculture and a 20-year hobby beekeeper. However, a dry spring indicates low honey flow, he said.

The honeybee, less commonly known as apis millifera, has taken some hard hits in recent years. Within the past decade, parasitic mites have preyed on Colorado’s bee colonies with devastating results. For the past 70 years, agricultural chemicals have poisoned bees.

Then there’s the occasional bear that fattens up for winter by gorging on honey in the fall, and the raccoon, who just makes a mess of things by ripping into hives for a sweet snack.

Add all those problems to loss of habitat through increased development, and bees become quite the underdog in the food chain – a chain in which they are a vital link.

Since many beekeepers are “hanging on by a thread anyway,” Cochran said the existing dry conditions could break many of the state’s commercial beekeepers.

A hard blow

to beekeepers

The drought is compounding the mite problem by weakening colonies, thus making them more acceptable to mite infestation and disease.

The mites causing all the problems are the varroa and tracheal mites. The tracheal mite imbeds itself in the bee’s throat, thus strangling it, while the varroa mite feeds on the blood of developing brood within the cells, causing deformities and death. Mite infestation is treatable, but it’s expensive, said Cochran. The cost puts struggling beekeepers “between a rock and a hard place.”

Foul brood, a contagious disease also wreaking havoc on Colorado’s bees, is treatable with antibiotics, such as terramycin, but some drug-resistant strains have been showing up across the state, said Cochran.

The loss of honey is only the beginning of the economic problem, since bees provide more services to the agricultural industry than just honey. Their pollination services can’t be replaced by manpower or any known technology.

Pollination is the process of transferring pollen grains from the anthers, or the pollen-bearing organ at the end of a flower’s reproductive organ, to the stigma of that or another flower. The process is essential to plant reproduction. Bees, considered the most efficient pollinators, aren’t the only ones. Birds, other insects, and wind and water also provide pollination.

According to Colorado Agricultural Statistics, Colorado’s commercial bees produced $1.1 million in honey in 2001. That number is almost half of what it was just eight years ago. From 1991 to 1996 bees produced an average of $2.1 million per year in honey.

According to Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, that translates to an annual average of $17 million in pollination services to Colorado’s fruit, vegetable and melon crops alone. That’s a lot of pollination.

“They really do provide a lot of services they don’t get paid for,” said Jerry Cochran.

Honey bees are more important now than ever before, said Jerry Webb, owner of the Beekeeper Company, a beekeeping and candle making supply company in Littleton. Webb also teaches beekeeping classes and maintains exhibition hives for the Denver Botanical Gardens.

There are about 4,000 known species of wild bees in the United States. In 1995, mite infestation killed off as much as 90 percent of Colorado’s feral bee population. If commercial and private beekeeping operations were to cease, so would most of the pollination of the state’s gardens and orchards.

This year, said Webb, “Bees are barely making a living.” They aren’t producing a surplus of food to keep them alive during the coming winter. “That’s unheard of,” said Webb.

Ware said she’ll probably start feeding sugar water to her bees to keep them alive for now, but if they don’t produce soon, “There’s no way they’ll last through the winter.”

Government loans are available for the state’s struggling beekeepers, said Rakich. But he’s not optimistic. If his bees don’t produce, he doesn’t make money and can’t make loan payments.

Rakich said this year’s low yields just might put him out of business. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “Go broke, I guess.”


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