Bees and their keepers are busy this time of year


April 15, 2020

Courtesy Photo

A bee returns to the hive with a load of pollen.

It's tempting to start waging war on those early dandelions, but before you dig in, keep in mind that bees are counting on the yellow morsels. They don't have a lot of dining choices this time of year and their honey pantries are a little bare coming out of winter.

"Right now it's a little tough, because everything is on the cusp of being ready to bloom," said Niwot native Dawn Server who owns Meadow Lake Honey in Niwot with her husband, Jeff. Maple trees and daffodils are other early sources of food in this transitional time of year. The Servers say it's helpful to bees, butterflies and other pollinators if people hold out a while before picking dandelions. The Servers, personally, wait until summer to remove them from their own yard.

The Servers are one of about 100 members of the Boulder County Beekeepers' Association, and most of them are hobbyists. Spring is a busy time for both the keepers and their bees.

Colonies are increasing their numbers this time of year. Each hive has only one queen who is laying between 1000 and 2000 eggs a day. The Servers check for larvae to make sure things are going well. They're also determining when to split the hives. If there are too many bees in one colony, a portion of them will leave for more spacious digs. That's when swarming can occur.

"It's very loud and a bit crazy," said Dawn. "You don't want your bees to swarm." They can end up in unwanted places like people's homes. That's not good for anyone, including the bees who become vulnerable to exterminators. If you do have a swarm around your home, you can call the swarm hotline and a beekeeper will safely remove the colony without killing the bees.

Six of seven of the Server's colonies will be split, giving them a total of 13, which is close to capacity for their backyard operation. The colony that ends up without the queen will crown new royalty. Actually, they will create her. Nurse bees feed all the larvae royal jelly, a substance they secrete from their bodies. But the nurse bees give extra royal jelly to one larvae, and that turns her into a queen.

Two of the Meadow Lake Honey colonies didn't make it through the winter, which the Servers say isn't too bad. Honey bees have been struggling across the country because of mites, pathogens, lack of food and pesticides. Mites can be treated if they are caught early. The Servers check several times a year, including spring. But they're hard to see. "It's like trying to find a lost diamond ring at the dump," said Kristina Williams, president of the Boulder Beekeepers' Association.

The Servers also are checking their colonies to make sure the bees have enough food to last until trees and flowers bloom in earnest. They'll feed them sugar water or pollen patties if there isn't enough honey in the hive.

Weather is another consideration for honey bees. Colorado's variable temperatures keep them on their little bee toes. They don't hibernate but, instead, form a ball to share the warmth. There has to be enough bees to form a basketball. If there are only enough to form a softball, they'll freeze. "They rotate from the outside to the inside so they all stay about the same temperature," said Jeff. "They are adapted to Colorado."

Honey bees won't leave the hive unless it is at least 45 degrees. As more bees emerge, Jeff and Dawn remind people that honey bees are focused on finding nectar and pollen, not you. They don't want to sting. If they do, they die. "It's defensive. They are not going to be the aggressor," said Jeff.

This could be an interesting spring and summer for bees because of the coronavirus. Pollinators depend on people planting flowers, vegetables and trees. It's unclear whether as many people will crowd into garden centers later this spring. But it is possible once the stay-at-home order is lifted. Garden centers are considered essential businesses.

"We need people to plant a lot when the stay-at-home order is eased. The bees need it," said Dawn, who also encourages people to have bee-safe gardens. "Please don't use pesticides. It weakens the bees and makes them more susceptible to mites and other diseases."

Some scientists believe that one out of every three bites of food we eat is dependent on pollinators, according to the USDA. Those essential workers include bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats and other insects.

Pollinators can even make our food taste better. "In your garden, plants are pollinated more than once," Dawn said. "The more it's pollinated, the better the fruit. It's better to have more bees because your garden is more productive."

You can keep that as motivation when you are trying to keep yourself from digging up that pesky dandelion.

A list of pollinator-friendly plants can be found courtesy of Harlequin Gardens in north Boulder.

Courtesy Photo

Dawn Server gives the bees a pollen pattie to supplement their limited food supply in spring.


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