Manitou Springs honeybee hives

Manitou Springs beekeeper Joseph Cree lost all but one of his honeybee hives over the winter.

The hum of honeybees isn’t as loud as usual this spring in Manitou Springs, a situation that some are calling “dire.”

“This is super important and super scary,” says Becky Elder, longtime Pikes Peak region gardener and permaculture specialist.

Elder has been fielding reports from backyard beekeepers and farmers, concluding that many of the managed beehives in Manitou Springs and on the west side of Colorado Springs have died.

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“There’s been a collapse in the beehive colony,” Elder said, “and people are really upset.”

While honeybee populations have been declining nationwide — from 6 million managed hives in 1947 to 2.67 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the extent of this year’s damage locally is “shocking,” said Joseph Cree, a Manitou Springs beekeeper who lost two of his three hives.

“I’m greatly saddened and fearful,” he said.

As primary pollinators for fruit trees, vegetables, flowers and other plants, bees are necessary for human survival.

“Blooms without bees means no fruit,” Elder said. “Over 75 percent of the food you eat every day is brought to you by bees. We’ll be reduced to meat and gruel if we don’t have bees.”

Dolly Rickerman, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Bee Supply in Colorado Springs, describes it as “the worst year on record here,” saying, “Everybody had beehive losses.”

But the decimation is not geographically contained, she said. Across the nation, beekeepers are reporting “a pretty devastating year,” Rickerman said.

Reasons vary, but likely culprits in southern Colorado include last year’s dry spring and summer.

“People had to feed their bees all season,” Rickerman said, “and if they didn’t build up enough honey stores, they suffered over the winter.”

Nectar sources such as dandelions, alfalfa and clover didn’t bloom as much as they should have last spring and summer, she said. “There wasn’t a lot of forage for them.”

And then came March’s bomb cyclone, which wiped out hives in Rocky Mountain Bee Supply’s Monument apiary, one of three bee yards the company operates.

“It’s really heart-breaking,” Rickerman said. “We care for the bees, we love them and take care of them. It feels like a punch in the stomach.”

A small parasite, the varroa mite, which sucks at the bee’s body, also could be to blame for the demise of colonies, according to beekeepers.

Others, like Connie Brown, point to residential and commercial use of strong pesticides.

She lost five hives on properties in Old Colorado City.

“Several were in the same neighborhood, and if someone was using Roundup on their dandelions, it could do damage,” she said. “It’s disappointing people are still using bad chemicals.”

Brown did not treat her hives for parasites, which also could have led to the deaths.

“I was trying to keep them natural,” she said. “They had plenty of food; they did not starve, and it wasn’t a bear or other act of nature. So what can you do?”

Beekeeping is complicated and involves getting educated, said Dave Primer, owner of Front Range Apiaries near Fort Collins, where he said hive loss wasn’t as large.

“Issues may be related to people not having the experience,” he said, adding that when he teaches classes he stresses “maintaining a healthy hive for full production.”

“A lot of people think you can go out there and put a hive together and have hundreds of pounds of honey,” Primer said. “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Steve Moll, owner of an organic lawn service, Clean Air Lawn Care, in Colorado Springs, calls bees “funny creatures.”

“You get a queen that doesn’t produce, a colony that doesn’t want to get into the habitation mode of creating comb,” he said. One of his two hives didn’t survive.

“There’s no doubt losses are happening across the country,” Moll said, “and there’s a lot of reasons bees are having issues. You need to know how to manage bees properly, and there’s not any one thing to point the finger at.”

For the Smokebrush Farm at the SunMountain Center in Manitou Springs, which lost its remaining hive over the winter, the situation means implementing more preventive practices, said manager Chris Collinge.

He recently held a public workshop on how growing king stropharia mushrooms in hardwood chip beds or mulch can prevent colony collapse.

“Bees are able to feed off this mycelium and produce different immunities to these viruses that have been wiping out colonies,” Collinge said.

“We’re hearing three to four of every 10 hives are lost annually,” he said, adding that people can help by not using harsh pesticides or herbicides.

According to the Bee Informed Partnership, an estimated 31 percent of managed colonies in the U.S. were lost during the 2017-2018 winter, a 9.5 percentage point increase over the previous year.

Local colonies that survived the winter are “going gangbusters,” said Rickerman of Rocky Mountain Bee Supply.

Beekeepers are preparing to split hives that will be getting ready to swarm in upcoming weeks.

Cree, whose grandfather taught him about beekeeping when he was 5 years old, has ordered starter colonies to replace his losses.

“I really enjoy bees; they have personality and a communication that’s articulate,” he said. “I’m often able to detect their moods, health and needs, and I try to provide for them — not for honey, that’s a gift, but for their livelihood.”

Hobbyist beekeeping is becoming more popular in the Pikes Peak region, Rickerman said.

“People are doing a lot of self-sufficient things, and they want to pollinate their gardens and fruit trees with bees,” she said. “They also want to just save the bees.”

Many people don’t realize the precarious situation of bees, Brown said.

“If even 10 percent of the population had a hive in their yard, we could save the bees.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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