Tom Theobald’s small garden gate sports a postage-sized sign: “Niwot Honey Farms.” Since 1975, he has raised honeybees, situating hives on the fields of farmers just as beekeepers have for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
Ask Tom about cooking with honey and he’ll raise his eyebrows in a critical arch: “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to cook with my honey. It’s handled carefully. Like a fine wine, it’s to be shared and enjoyed for the flavor. It’s not easy to extract honey this way; it’s an agony, but I’m a purist.”
Honey directly from the hive is warmed so that it can be extracted easily from the hive. If it’s warmed to 140 degrees, the honey stays in liquid form on the grocery shelf. That’s the honey we’re familiar with, although raw honey is more popular in Europe.
Understandably, beekeepers don’t want to hang around angry bees when extracting honey. Time is of the essence. But Theobald is undaunted. Even on a bad day, when a beekeeper can be stung fifty times, Theobald insists that tastes will be altered, flavors changed, according to how honey is handled and processed.
At 58, Theobald is tall and grizzled with a thick, wiry beard. Colorado beekeepers point to him as the bee expert, the man to come to for advice. He’s the bee columnist for Fencepost magazine and knows every detail about bee history and lore.
He’ll describe how bees dance for their colleagues when they discover a new, rich nectar source. The dance will describe both the direction and distance. Bees pass pollen from their front legs to their middle leg joints and finally to their back haunches until they wear billowing yellow pollen pantaloons that look to Theobald like “Spanish dancers.” The pollen is protein to feed their brood in the hive; the nectar is for honey.
Beekeeping in Colorado, he will inform you, followed agriculture. Honeybees are important pollinators. Without them, you won’t get peaches or apples, melons or oranges. That’s why there’s orange blossom honey, or clover honey. Acres and acres of crops are needed for bees. And bees are needed for acres and acres of crops—especially fruit crops.
Some plants, like corn, are wind pollinated and don’t need insects. But much of what is grown requires a honeybee to pollinate the flower–cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, raspberries, avocados, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. If the fruit is shrunken or misshapen, if the apple isn’t sweet, that’s often the consequence of too little pollination. The bee must visit again and again for adequate pollination to take place.
Other pollinators include the hummingbird—a spectacular pollinator with its long, needle-shaped bill, as well as the bumble bee and dozens of other tiny ground bees. The drawback is that most of these native insects don’t arrive in the numbers that beekeepers provide. And a few farmers are uniquely dependent on the honeybee. Almond trees can’t set fruit with just any butterfly; it must be the honeybee.
At one time, Colorado had a reputation for producing fine honey, mostly sweet clover and alfalfa. Tom remembers when honeybees saved the melon industry in the Arkansas Valley. Today, he says, there are fewer bees than ever. We could live on imported honey. But we couldn’t grow a third of our crops without the busiest creature alive. That’s why he’s alarmed that numbers of honeybees are dwindling all over the country.
Tom can remember when North America was covered in honeybees, even though this continent was not their native home. American colonists brought hives to the new country because beeswax was essential for candles. Bees often broke loose and formed colonies in the wild. These wild bees are extinct now because of a tiny, deadly mite. Homegrown colonies can be inoculated from the mite. But all bees face extinction from pesticides.
Apple growers in the state of Washington call in beekeepers when crops need to be fertilized. Afterwards, beekeepers scramble to remove their bees when pesticide spraying begins. “In the 1970s we had massive pesticide losses,” Tom laments. That’s because honeybees are particularly susceptible. And they must live in close quarters to large fields such as alfalfa or clover. In a difficult year, beekeepers may lose 40 percent of their bees.
“It’s baffling. Raising bees is the most beneficial, essential job around,” he says, “yet, it’s under constant threat. I think it’s too abstract for people to understand. So, we won’t see any changes until the industry collapses. And, then, it’s not easy to bring back.”
That’s because the work is physically demanding, the business isn’t very lucrative and it takes aptitude. Tom believes the numbers of community beekeepers are dwindling: “We’re increasingly endangered, along with the honeybee,” he says, “just like the whooping crane.”
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