via Veronica Volny
by Edilbe Front Range
Bee on Dandelion

Come spring, honeybees along Colorado’s Front Range
emerge from their winter slumber. They seek out the first
flush of blossoms, deterred only by the occasional late spring
snow. And local beekeepers are close behind, slipping into their
white jumpsuits to check on their charges, anxious to learn if they
made it through the winter.

In winters past, a beekeeper could hope to find all of her colonies
healthy and happy. But since the arrival of the parasitic varroa mite in
the late eighties, honeybees—and their keepers—have been struggling.

The mite affects virtually every managed colony of European honeybees,
and greater winter losses are now the norm. “It’s typical to lose
about 30 percent,” explains Laura Tyler of Boulder’s Backyard Bees.
Before the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, came to dominate the
North American landscape, thousands of different species of native
bees pollinated flowers and food crops. But suburban sprawl and industrial
agriculture have largely displaced the natives. And because of
their disappearance, our crops—including Colorado’s Eastern Plains
alfalfa andWestern Slope stone fruit—depend more heavily than
ever on the services of the European honeybee. In fact, pollination
contracts—not honey—have become the modern beekeepers’
primary source of income: Every year, most of the country’s commercial
bees are hauled from coast to coast on the backs of 18-
wheelers, from California’s almond orchards to Maine’s blueberry
fields, in constant pursuit of the bloom.
Recently, however, European honeybees have made headlines—and
the news is grim.

Beekeepers across the country have suited up in
spring only to find their hives inexplicably empty.While some beekeepers
have been spared, the mysterious new ailment, Colony Collapse
Disorder (CCD), has caused devastating losses.

Tom Theobald of Niwot Honey Farm has been keeping bees and
harvesting honey for the past 33 years. Early on, his colonies were
growing faster than he could manage. Now, he struggles to maintain
his target of 100 hives. “Last winter, my losses were 45 percent” he
says, pained. “This winter, they’re going to run over 70 percent. I
may be looking at the end.”

But according to Tom, CCD is not a recent phenomenon. “I’ve been
seeing what they’re describing as CCD ever since the varroa mite
showed up,” he says. Possible causes of CCD—viruses, pesticides,
parasites, genetically modified crops, and even cell phones—have
come under investigation, but no specific culprit has been found. “I
think we are going to find multiple causes,” says Tom.
Tom credits local hobbyist beekeepers with the maintenance of feral
colonies along the Front Range. Feral bees are European honeybees
that have escaped their human beekeepers. “Even the best beekeepers
will occasionally lose a swarm, and that helps regenerate the environment,”
he explains.

Corwin Bell and Karen Sadenwater, founders of Backyard Hive in
Eldorado Springs, make handcrafted beehives. They hope more and
more Coloradans will give honeybees a home in their own backyards.
“We want more people to care about bees,” says Karen. If commercial
bees continue to suffer, we may come to rely on backyard
beehives to preserve an invaluable natural resource. And, we may
need to pay more attention to those native bees that we’ve overlooked
for so long.

Help make your community a better place for native bees, honeybees
and local beekeepers:
• Keep bees in mind when selecting plants for your garden. Plant
native flowers such as RockyMountain Bee plant, Giant Hyssop,
Azure Blue Sage, and Maximilian’s Sunflower.
• Sustain bees throughout the growing season by planting a succession
of blooms.
• Avoid using pesticides in your garden, and encourage your city
to do the same.
• Provide nesting sites for native bees by maintaining bare patches
of ground, leaving dead wood on trees, or putting up “bee
blocks”—they are inexpensive and easy to make.
• Support beekeepers in your community: buy local honey and
beeswax products.
• Become a beekeeper, and enjoy a steady supply of honey from
your own backyard.

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