Where are all the bees in Eagle County?

A decline in local pollinators and honey bees is pushing local beekeepers to seek answers and solutions.
Knapp Ranch / Daily Special

Bees and pollinators play a crucial role in food agriculture and the sustainability of our ecosystem. This is why, while bee colonies have declined over the years, beekeepers and local residents are taking note.

A recent thread on the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook group showed that areas around the valley – including Brush Creek, Vail and others – were noticing fewer pollinators this summer.

Ask a few Eagle County beekeepers about the trend and there are several reasons they have a hard time getting their bees to buzz.

Unwanted guests

John Novak, local beekeeper and owner of Brush Creek Beekeeping, lost nearly 80% of his bees this winter to an unwanted guest: Varroa mites.
John Novak / Daily Special

John Novak, local beekeeper and owner of Brush Creek Beekeeping, lost nearly 80% of his bees this winter. The guilty? Varroa mites.

“Last year we had horrible Varroa mites all over the Western Slope,” Novak said. “They were so bad, the numbers were endless in the hives.”

Varroa mites, like honey bees, are native to Europe and, since the 1980s, have been a pervasive threat to American beekeepers. Parasitic mites enter hives, attach themselves to bees and weaken them, spreading viruses inside the hive.

“We will always be dealing with dust mites,” he said. “They will always be there. “

Novak said that after the mites got over last year, he started treating them, but to no avail. And now he won’t have any more honey to sell this year.

“In general, my bees get through the winter without a problem,” he said. “While we had a lot of food in the hives and quite a few, the mites were just terrible. Now, most of the west slope beekeepers are in reconstruction mode.

A perfectly bad storm

However, mites are not the only factor that beekeepers have had to contend with.

“We’ve had a really tough spring for pollinators,” said Carmen Weiland, estate manager and master beekeeper at The Farm at Knapp Ranch in Edwards. The rapid change from hot to cold in a single day, she said, creates difficult conditions for pollinators.

“They may not have regrouped quickly enough to stay warm and they are dying,” Weiland said. “I have seen a decrease in the number of wasps on the ranch and probably for similar reasons. Sometimes in the hives we find bumblebees or wasps that have tried to get in to keep warm.

Rain, or the lack of it, is another factor.

“When I moved here in the 90s and they have this it was raining every afternoon you could count on it,” she said. “So now we don’t get rain for a month or two and the nectar dries up and it’s known in the beekeeping world as a shortage, when the nectar runs dry you have to feed your bees, otherwise they are stressed and they die if it is in the middle of the season.

Who, with the western slope experiencing drought conditions ranging from severe to extreme to exceptional – the highest category of the US 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.

Man-made challenges

Knapp Ranch sells Slovenian beehives to people and helps them set up and maintain their bees. This education and collaboration is crucial in creating sustainable and healthy hives.
Knapp Ranch / Daily Special.

Cary Hogan, who is responsible for hospitality and events at Knapp Ranch, recently got into beekeeping last May thanks to encouragement and support from Weiland. However, Hogan almost immediately lost all 40,000 bees to the mosquito sprays in the gypsum.

But, even after contacting the city, Hogan said Gypsum decided to spray against mosquitoes again this year.

“I called and signed up on the ‘do not spray list’ and I encourage my neighbors to do the same,” she said. “Bees can travel up to 100 miles, so if everyone doesn’t adhere to ‘Do not spray’ then my bees or any bees are affected.”

This spray, according to Weiland, is harmful to all pollinators. “Every time you put out a spray during the day, you kill the pollinators,” Weiland said. “I think that’s part of it. The other part is what people do back home: Roundup and if you use a lot of pesticides and insecticides and everything else, it’s bad for local pollinators as well. “

These sprays and pesticides are becoming more and more problematic for beekeepers because they can affect the entire ecosystem, according to Weiland, calling these sprays “systemic”.

“It enters the plant and stays there for the rest of its life. So once you spray a tree or buy a plant from a center and it has neonicotinoids or GMOs in it, it’s there for life. And it’s in little, little particles, so when the bees report it, they constantly report what is considered poison to them, slowly but surely their hive is getting sicker and sicker.

Not only does this happen with bees, but Weiland says she has noticed that bumblebees have been affected in recent years as well.

This year, with new bee hives, Hogan hopes for a better result, but also asks his neighbors and his city to think about what they are putting in the natural environment.

Building a healthier environment

Colorado is home to 946 native bee species, and preserving all of these species – along with non-native bees – is crucial to preserving not only our environment, but our food sources as well.

According to United States Department of Agriculture, more than a third of all crop production – or 90 crops, including nuts, berries, and flowering vegetables – requires insect pollination to thrive.

“[Pollinators] are what is called a key species; other animals down the food chain depend on them to pollinate food, ”Weiland said. “The food that they pollinate is going to slowly disappear and then it just has a ripple effect, then the animals die, then the people start dying, because then we can’t feed the masses anymore.”

But all is not hopeless; there are some things local residents can do to help be more pollinator friendly.

“We need to be more careful with poisons,” Weiland said, adding that the Internet is full of alternative and home solutions to get rid of unwanted pests that do not contain poison.

Pesticides, she said, are also not so healthy for us as humans. “Just making healthier choices for the human population will in turn be healthier for our environment. “

Human development also has impacts on these native pollinator species. When humans enter and invade natural habitats, bees lose their food source and their homes. To help combat this, residents can plant more wildflowers and native species in their gardens. This is especially beneficial for bumblebees, which are much more selective than honey bees when it comes to pollination.

For bumblebees and 70% of bee species native to Colorado, leaving raw soil instead of mulch will give them a place to burrow in the winter. For carpenter bees, leaving logs around will give them a place to nest that is not your home.

“People keep bringing all these things that are not native to the area and the bumblebees, through evolution, have pollinated native plants and that’s what they’re used to, so they won’t go. not to many of those other flowers or plants. When we take everything away from them, they have no food, ”Weiland said.

Eagle County is home to a beautiful ecosystem of insects, wildlife, trees and plants. Taking good care of every part of this ecosystem will have many positive effects downstream.

“We 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 way off,” Weiland said.

About Sherri Flowers

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