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By Ken Lutes

Edgewater resident Kelly Shinn is seeing fewer honey bees flitting from flower to flower than she would expect during this time of year, and she’s not alone. The backyard beekeeper who prefers to think of herself as a backyard bee guardian said, “We do everything organically in our yard to provide a safe habitat for bees, because we know their numbers are dwindling.”

Greg Rye, owner of Dakota Bees in Wheat Ridge, is experiencing the same diminishing bee phenomenon.

“I’ve got three healthy hives in my home back yard. I go out to look at my [blossom-laden] pear tree on a warm day, and there’s not a bee on it. I don’t know where they’re going to get food, but they’re flying somewhere else and coming back.”

Other than disease, Shinn believes a reason we’re seeing fewer bees in this area is due to housing developments.

“Rather than having whole fields of wild flowers, their habitat is being broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, and bees have to go farther and farther to forage.”

Varroa mites are a serious threat to bee survival. Rye recently read a study of wild hives that stated the varroa mites are to some extent in all wild hives now. According to a Wikipedia article, “The Varroa mite can only reproduce in a honey bee colony. It attaches to the body of the bee and weakens the bee by sucking fat bodies. In this process, viruses are spread to bees. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honey bee colony.”

“One organic way I use to control the mites,” said Shinn, “is to shake powdered sugar on the bees. In the process of cleaning the sugar dust off themselves and each other, they also peel off the mites, which, if you look closely, can be seen with the naked eye.”

Bees are important first of all to the ecosystem and then to humans, Shinn said.

“If it weren’t for honeybees pollinating, we wouldn’t have a third of our food, vegetables, nuts and fruits.”

She doesn’t think of herself as a bee expert, but she’s accumulated a good deal of knowledge through her personal experience and in her role as garden and program manager at nonprofit Earthlinks (earthlinks-colorado.org). She offered some useful suggestions for assuring that bees and humans can continue to benefit from bee activity.

One of the best things people can do to help bees is to plant flowers, “ones that bloom at different times of the season, so there’s always something for the bees. Planting flowers is planting food for bees. Even weeds produce flowers.”

Shinn strongly cautions people not to spray dandelions with insecticides containing neonicotinoids.

“Their flowers provide some of the first food to come up in the spring, and poisoned dandelion flowers will make bees sick.”

Interested in having a backyard hive that would provide a valuable service to bees, families and communities? According to Edgewater’s animal ordinances, you’re allowed three hives (edgewaterco.org). Hives are available at Earthlinks as well as Dakota Bees, which also sells bees.

“You want to place hives where bees can get first-morning light, so they wake up and get going, but where there’s dappled light during the hottest part of the day,” Shinn said. “Make sure the hive gets enough sun during the winter that they won’t freeze. In the hot months, it’s great to have them in a spot where they receive filtered light.”

“Backyard beekeepers who properly feed and include proper treatment for mites have the most success,” Rye said. Dakota Bees (dakotabees.com) offers education classes on bee maintenance.

Bees live in most climates; however, the Denver area can get unexpected cold snaps and heat waves in the spring and fall, which can affect productivity and hive well-being.

Shinn is fascinated by the habitual foraging by bees. Their four wings keep them traveling at about 15 miles per hour, as they fly from flower to flower. Once their honey stomachs are full of nectar, they head to the hive. On their way home, enzymes break down the nectar’s complex sugars into simple sugars; then the honey-making process begins.

“To evaporate excess moisture, bees either beat their wings or let the hive get warm enough from the sun’s heat,” Shinn said. “They magically know when there’s 18 percent water content; that’s when nectar becomes honey. They deposit the honey into beeswax combs that worker bees make from secretions of liquefied wax from glands on their undersides; then the honey is sealed inside the comb.”

In a single bee’s lifetime, a worker bee makes only about one-twelfth teaspoon of honey, according to the National Honey Board (honey.com).

This time of year is swarming season for bees, and Shinn hopes to find and capture a swarm for one of her backyard hives. Why do bees swarm? She said it’s how they propagate, and that when there are too many bees in the hive, they send the old queen out with half of the bees and hatch a new queen.

“When we find a swarm, we slide a cardboard box underneath it and brush them into the box; a few fly away, but they pretty much stay clumped. Right before they swarm, they gorge themselves on honey and are in a kind of food coma while surrounding the queen to protect her.”

People who see a swarm hanging from a fence or tree branch can contact Shinn at Earthlinks, 303-389-0085, to arrange for collection.