PHOTOS: Maintaining healthy hives on Colorado’s West Slope
Beekeeping chores go far beyond simply producing honey at Colorado Mountain Honey
Derrick Maness started beekeeping at the age of 14 with Paul Limbach at Western Colorado Honey. Now, many years later, Maness is the owner of Colorado Mountain Honey and manages 75 different hive locations spread from as far north as Trapper’s Lake, as far west as Palisade and as far south as Woody Creek.
Under the watchful eye of Limbach during his adolescent years, Maness has spent the last 17 years acting as Limbach’s right-hand man and slowly moved up in the ranks to eventually becoming the manager of operations before taking over ownership.
“He stuck with me through my adolescence,” Maness said. “As he has gotten older I’ve loved being able to repay him. He was definitely a big influence on me growing up.”
Every year is different in the beekeeping world, mostly depending on weather. A late freeze last spring significantly affected natural food supplies for bears which left them hungry and determined to find whatever they could to get by.
Over 21 of Maness’ hive locations were hit by frequent bear attacks this year causing thousands of dollars in damage and losses. Electric fencing surrounds all of Maness’ hives, but hungry bears found ways to dig underneath them.
“Bears don’t just go for the honey,” Maness said. “They go for the bee larvae.”
Varroa destructor mite
Outside of bear attacks, bees are also combating a destructive parasite called the varroa mite.
The varroa mite has been hitting beehives across the United States for at least 30 years after it was transferred from a species of honeybee in India to the popular European honeybee. Because the European honeybee is more docile and produces the most honey they have been moved all around the world.
Limbach found evidence that the varroa mite had made it to his bees in 1996.
Because the mite infestation is relatively new to the European honeybee, they have not yet evolved to have a natural defense mechanism to fight them off.
Hawaii was the last United State to be affected by the varroa mite, which found its way to the island state 10 years ago.
“I believe it killed around 30,000 natural colonies within one year; it almost wiped out Hawaii,” Maness said.
Simply leaving the bees alone and letting them try to combat the mites themselves unfortunately doesn’t work. The colony will eventually die off.
“It’s just like fleas with your cat– if your cat got fleas, you would go take care of it,” Maness said. “We know the original bee had a relationship with it so it’s just going to take time. Things just don’t fix overnight.”
Monitoring and mitigating the mites is currently the most beneficial thing Maness can do for the hives and the health of his bees.
“You have to know what your infestation level is before you can know what to do with it,” he said.
Low infestation levels can be treated initially with essential oils. Hives with higher levels of infestation need certain medications such as Apiguard, a product made specifically to fight the varroa mite.
Maness hopes to start making videos for social media to educate other beekeepers in the area on the importance of knowing about and fighting the varroa mite.
“If they’re not taking care of their hives but I’m taking care of mine, one week from now mine can be re-infested because their bees die and my bees go there to get the honey,” Maness said.
To monitor the level of infestation, Maness takes samples from hives by measuring out 300 nursery bees and placing them into a cup with a strainer in the bottom. That cup is then set into another cup with alcohol killing both bees and mites.The bees stay in the upper cup while the mites fall through the strainer and into the bottom cup of alcohol. Maness is then able to count each mite and make a determination of infestation levels.
“This isn’t like cattle or horses; I can’t go up to them and say ‘oh, they don’t look good’,” Maness said. “By the time you’re seeing them on your bees you’re already in deep trouble.”
To understand the size comparison of a mite on a bee, it would be similar to a human having a tick the size of a basketball.
“That’s why it got the name varroa destructor mite, because it causes destruction wherever it goes,” he said.
Now that the first snowstorm of the coming winter season has hit, the focus will begin shifting to bringing the bees down from the high country and taking them to places with warmer climates like Palisade or Parachute. Eventually the bees will take an extended vacation in California during the winter months to enjoy the warmer climate but to more importantly aid in almond production.
Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at email@example.com.
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