Where are all the bees in Eagle County?
Whether it’s weather, pesticides, mites or a combination of all three, reviving pollinator populations is top of mind for local beekeepers
Honeybees and pollinators play a crucial role in food agriculture and the sustainability of our ecosystem. Which is why, as bee colonies have experienced declines over the years, local beekeepers and residents are taking notice.
A recent thread on the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook group showed that areas around the valley — including Brush Creek, Vail and others — were noticing less pollinators this summer.
Ask a few Eagle County beekeepers about the trend and there are a few reasons as to why they’re having trouble keeping their honeybees buzzing around.
John Novak, a local beekeeper and owner of Brush Creek Beekeeping, lost nearly 80% of his bees this winter. The culprit? Varroa mites.
“Last year, we just had horrible Varroa mites everywhere on the Western Slope,” Novak said. “They were so bad, the numbers were uncountable in the hives.”
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Varroa mites, like honeybees, originate from Europe, and since the 1980s have posed a pervasive threat to U.S. beekeepers. The parasitic mites enter the hives, attach to and weaken the bees, spreading viruses within the hive.
“We’ll always be dealing with the mites, “ he said. “They will always be here.”
Novak said that once the mites took over last year, he began treating them — but with no avail. And now, he won’t have any honey to sell this year.
“I usually get my bees through the winter no problem,” he said. “While we had plenty of food in the hives and good numbers, the mites were just terrible. Now, most beekeepers on the Western Slope are in rebuild mode.”
A perfectly bad storm
However, the mites aren’t the only factor the beekeepers have had to face.
“We had a really hard spring for pollinators,” said Carmen Weiland, estate manager and master beekeeper at The Farm at Knapp Ranch in Edwards. The quick shift from hot to cold in a single day, she said, creates harsh conditions for pollinators.
“They might not have clustered fast enough to keep warm and they die,” Weiland said. “I did see a decrease of wasps up at the ranch and probably for similar reasons. Sometimes in the hives we’ll find bumblebees or wasps that have tried to get in to stay warm.”
The rain, or lack thereof, is another factor.
“When I moved here in the 90s and they have that, it used to rain every afternoon, you could count on it,” she said. “Whereas now, we don’t get rain for a month or two and the nectar is drying up and it’s known, in the beekeeping world as dearth, when the nectar dries up you have to feed your bees, otherwise they get stressed and they die if it’s in the middle of the season.”
Which, with the Western Slope experiencing drought conditions that range from severe to extreme to exceptional — the highest category on the U.S. Drought Monitor — and no sign of relief in the long-term forecast will continue to affect more and more hives and pollinators in the future.
Cary Hogan, who serves as the hospitality and event manager at Knapp Ranch, recently got into beekeeping last May thanks to some encouragement and support from Weiland. However, Hogan nearly immediately lost all 40,000 bees due to mosquito spraying in Gypsum.
But, even after contacting the city, Hogan said Gypsum decided to spray for mosquitos again this year.
“I called and got on the ‘Do Not Spray list’ and I am encouraging my neighbors to do the same,” she said. “Bees can travel up to 100 miles, so if everyone does not buy into ‘Do Not Spray,’ then my bees or any bees are affected.”
This spray, according to Weiland, is harmful to all pollinators. “Any time you broadcast spray during the day, you’re killing the pollinators,” Weiland said. “I think that’s part of it. The other part is what people do at their homes: Roundup and if you’re using a lot of pesticides and insecticides and all that stuff, it’s harmful to the local pollinators as well.”
These sprays and pesticides are becoming increasingly problematic for beekeepers as they can affect the entire ecosystem, according to Weiland, calling these sprays “systemic.”
“It gets into the plant and it stays there for life. So once you spray a tree or if you buy a plant from a center and it has neonicotinoids or GMOs in it, it’s there for life. And it’s in small, small particles so when the bees bring it back, they’re constantly bringing back what is considered poison to them, slowly but surely their hive gets sicker and sicker.”
Not only is this happening with honeybees, but Weiland says she’s noticed that bumblebees have also taken a hit in recent years.
This year, with new hives of bees, Hogan is hoping for a better outcome, but is also asking her neighbors and town to consider what they’re putting out into the natural environment.
Building a healthier environment
Colorado has 946 native species of bees, and the preservation of all these species — as well as of the non-native honeybees — is crucial to preserving not only our environment, but also our food sources.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than one-third of all crop production — or 90 crops including nuts, berries and flowering vegetables — requires insect pollination to thrive.
“[Pollinators] are what’s called a keystone species; other animals down the food chain rely on them to pollinate the food,” Weiland said. “The food that they pollinate is going to go away slowly and then it just has a ripple effect, then animals die, then people start dying, because then we can’t feed the masses anymore.”
But it’s not all hopeless; there are some things that local residents can do to help be more pollinator-friendly.
“We’ve got to be more cautious with poisons,” Weiland said, adding that the internet is full of alternative and at-home solutions to get rid of unwanted pests that don’t include poison.
Pesticides, she said, also aren’t that healthy for us as humans. “Just making healthier choices for the human population will be in turn healthier for our environment.”
Human development also has its impacts on these native pollinator species. When humans come in and take over natural habitats, bees lose their food source and their homes. To help combat this, residents can plant more wildflowers and native species in their yards. This is particularly beneficial to bumblebees, which are much more selective than honey bees when it comes to pollination.
For bumblebees, and 70% of Colorado’s native bee species, leaving raw dirt instead of mulch will give them a place to burrow in the winter. For carpenter bees, leaving some logs around will give them a place to nest that isn’t your home.
“People keep bringing in all of this stuff that’s not native to the area and bumblebees, through evolution, have pollinated the native plants and that’s what they’re used to so they won’t go to a lot of these other flowers or plants. When we’re taking it all away, they don’t have food,” Weiland said.
Eagle County is home to a beautiful ecosystem of insects, wildlife, trees and plants.Taking good care of each part of this ecosystem will have an abundance of positive downstream effects.
“We’ve just ruined the cycle, so once we start making it healthier, the cycle will come back and the environment will take care of itself but we’re a long ways away,” Weiland said.