Backyard Bees: The Ultimate Social Animal

Denver is abuzz with urban beekeepers who keep hives humming as a hobby. Their primary motive isn't love of honey -- it's love of bees.
The parking lot in north Denver was abuzz with a few hundred people who braved a snowstorm and hour-long wait on the last Saturday in April for what has to be one of the most exciting days in the life of a beekeeper.

The line inched forward, and finally it was Todd Britton's turn. His order: two boxes of bees, about 10,000 in each box, including a queen that for now was tended to by nurse bees in a separate compartment. After three or so anxious days, she would be introduced to the drones, or worker bees, and if the relationship took, a backyard hive would be up and running, or at least have a chance. It's possible the drones would reject the queen, but not likely.

"That's the only queen they have, so there's a 99 percent chance they will accept her," says Jeff Curry, a local beekeeper who sells honey at farmers markets and works for Dakota Bees, the Littleton-based supplier that was fulfilling the orders on this Saturday. Curry spent most of this cold, wet morning breaking open crates of bees in boxes shipped from California, now bound for back yards, urban gardens or other spaces along the Front Range.

Britton has kept bees in his East Washington Park backyard for about five years. "They found me," he says, explaining how his interest in bees was sparked when a swarm moved into a soffit outside his house. "When a bee-removal guy came to take them away, I asked, 'Can I keep these guys?' He said, 'Sure.'"

Britton was referred to Littleton-based retailer To Bee Or Not To Bee, which offers beekeeping classes and where he bought his beekeeping equipment. He's been keeping bees ever since.

Legalized beesMarygael Meister keeps a hive in the backyard of her Highland home.

The city of Denver allows two bee hives per residence. Marygael Meister, founder and former president of the Denver Beekeepers Association, fought for and won the right for Denver residents to keep bees in 2008 when she won a legal battle waged over the bees she kept -- and still keeps -- at her Highland property.

Britton, like many backyard beekeepers, doesn't keep his bees chiefly for honey, though in past years he has harvested some. Interest in beekeeping has grown throughout the country in recent years for a few reasons. One is the sustainability movement and interest in "urban homesteading." Also, the well-publicized decline in bee populations has raised awareness of bees' vital role -- in agriculture and the ecosystem in general -- as pollinators. News stories and documentaries on bees have shed light on their fascinating social structure.

"Most people just find bees interesting," says Kristina Williams, an entomologist and president of Mile Hive Bee Club in Denver, which has about 75 members and meets once a month. "They like the process of going out and working with the bees, and many of them have side interests having to do with bees, one of which is honey. Some people use the wax for art. Some people ferment the honey [for mead]. Some people like to garden for bees. And it's just sort of a way of getting back in touch with the natural world, especially if you live in the city."

Williams majored in biology as an undergrad, then studied honey bee behavior and genetics as a graduate student at CU. She's worked on bee projects as far off as Brazil and Mexico. Explaining their appeal, she says, "They live in a complex society. They can live on their own, so they're semi-wild. They're also important in agriculture. There's just always something to learn. I'm still learning about them. Every time I open a hive there's something else to look at."

Spring swarmsBeekeeper Shava Li Crocetta has about 25 hives she tends to in Denver.

Those who didn't pre-order bees back in February or March still have one other avenue for starting a hive: They can get on a list for a swarm. The Colorado State Beekeepers Association, which has been around since 1880, maintains a swarm hotline that serves as a removal service and then relocates the swarm to a residence or organization on the list. Bees split off from their orginal hives and form swarms from about mid-April until the first week of June.

But getting a swarm to thrive in a backyard hive is anything but certain, says Gregg McMahan, owner of Rocky Mountain Bee Removal, Rescue & Education. "A swarm queen -- she could be one year old, or four years old and at the end of her life," he says. "So when you collect a swarm, you are rolling the dice that you're getting a decent queen that's been fertilized properly."
McMahan, who teaches a beekeeping class at To Bee Or Not To Bee and serves as a swarm dispatcher for the CSBA, says a hive can yield between 30 and 90 pounds of honey per year (three pounds is about one quart.)

His description of bee life is fascinating, if somewhat grim: "A queen can live four or five years, whereas a female worker bee in the summer only lives 30 days," he says. "She works herself to death." As for males, "They don't clean the hive, they don't collect pollen, they don't collect nectar, they don't make wax, they don't even have a stinger. And all they do is fertilize a queen. They fertilize queens from other hives, not their own. Mating takes place at about 150 feet in the air. And a queen is going to have to mate with 15 to 20 boys. And then she will store that sperm for the rest of her life. She only has about seven days to be fertilized properly."

Another notable apiarist organization is The Urban Pollination Project, launched by Seneca Kristjonsdottir about five years ago to inspire and build pollinator habitat through educational programs. She also manages about 30 hives in urban gardens and on commercial rooftops, including Union Station and skyscrapers in downtown Denver, working with a Boston-based company called Best Bees Co. that has expanded to Denver.

Kristjonsdottir says her interest in bees was piqued as a 15-year-old when she read The Secret Lives of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. That inspired her to start a hive, and then to study urban ecology and bee husbandry as an undergraduate at Goddard College in Vermont.

"The Urban Pollination Project is actually a product of those studies," she says. "I spent a lot of time apprenticing under people.

This is a third in a series of stories exploring backyard animal husbandry in Denver. Read the first one, on chickens, here, and the second, on goats, here.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
Signup for Email Alerts