Beekeepers get a lot of things from the bees they raise: beeswax, honey, money. But Tom Theobald gets all that and more. "Life," he says. "I get to participate in a unique natural system that really gives me a window into the workings of the whole natural world. And in the end, I produce one of nature's finest delicacies. What more could you ask for?"
September is National Honey Month and the prime harvesting month for beekeepers. This afternoon, Theobald is deep into his 29th honey harvest at Niwot Honey Farm, a one-man operation headquartered in a humble, garage-sized building. While classical music drifts from a radio, a couple dozen bees and wasps hum about the shop and around his sweatband-wrapped head. "Relax, and they won't bother you," he advises.
Theobald works around as many as a thousand bees and wasps. But the only time he gets stung -- an accepted hazard of the job -- is when he sets his hand down on one of the creatures. "If you're a seamstress," he notes, "you understand you're going to get stuck with a needle every now and then."
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Insects humming about his head, Theobald lifts frames from a stack of wooden boxes, each frame loaded with honey-filled honeycombs. He skims each frame across a vibrating knife that slices open the cells, allowing the honey to drip out. The frames are placed in a stainless-steel spinner that extracts it via centrifugal force. The honey is processed at room temperature -- "Heat is the enemy of flavor," Theobald says -- and filtered through cheesecloth, then pumped into a large steel tank that holds 700 pounds of honey. Before the day is out, he will fill the tank.
As he separates honey from wax (which he uses to make beeswax candles and bee balm in the off-season), Theobald waxes poetic about his six-legged co-workers. Pollination from bees is the catalyst for a third of the nation's agriculture, he says, from fruit and seed crops to various vegetables and nuts. In Colorado, bees make possible about $240 million worth of the state's ag-economy.
Theobald backed into this career three decades ago, after growing tired of his regimented life as a manager at IBM. He quit that job, and soon a neighbor introduced him to a couple in their nineties who had kept bees for many years. "They had spent their whole lives doing something they loved," Theobald remembers. "Their eyes glazed over talking about bees." The couple introduced Theobald to Harlan Henderson, a beekeeper in Niwot, who became Theobald's mentor, then friend and partner. In 1986, Henderson turned his operation over to Theobald.
"How lucky can I be?" Theobald asks.
He also gets an assist from friends and colleagues who trade storage space and other services for honey. "It's hard work, boy," Theobald says of beekeeping. "It takes a lot of ingenuity, creativity and risk-taking. It's not for sissies."
Three years ago, one bear wiped out $4,000 worth of his honey and hives. Smaller creatures pose an even bigger threat. Over the past decade, varroa and tracheal mites have wiped out a large chunk of the nation's wild and farm-raised bees -- as much as 90 percent of the country's feral hives, Theobald estimates, and perhaps half of the maintained hives. In Colorado, he says, use of the pesticide Penncap-M on farm crops has also hammered hives, in part because the state dragged its feet and ignored warnings from beekeepers. "The Colorado Department of Agriculture has been a disgrace," he adds.
He slips an empty jar beneath the spigot of the holding tank and fills it with liquid gold -- honey from bees that forage mainly on Boulder County alfalfa. The honey tastes like heaven, a light-bodied, delicately sweet elixir with notes of candied violets and honeysuckle nectar, and undertones of lemon.
Not far from Theobald's bee farm is the office of the National Honey Board. When it was founded in 1986, the NHB's first CEO, Dan Hall, was a resident of Longmont, and Colorado became honey central, even though the state ranks far down on the list of America's top honey suppliers. The group is funded by a penny-per-pound assessment that's collected from the nation's larger honey producers (companies that produce over 6,000 pounds per year), and it has a staff of ten.
One of those staffers is Jami Yanoski, a marketer responsible for keeping honey flowing across the country. In her Longmont office, Yanoski breaks out a selection of jars from around the USA, to show the range of honey being made these days. Because varietal honeys are slowly gaining favor with consumers, each one is made by bees that forage over specific flowers. Yanoski spreads out some small wooden spoons, and the tasting session begins with a dip of clover honey. The most ubiquitous honey style, made famous by Sue Bee, it is sweet and predictable. Sue Bee's orange-blossom version takes things up several notches with vivid notes of citrus fruits and subdued sweetness. A sage honey, by Dutch Gold, is mildly sweet, with aromas of sage leaves, and the company's version of the famed (thanks to Van Morrison) tupelo honey delivers mouth-flipping kisses of Good & Plenty flavor.
A eucalyptus honey features a buttery body and hints of menthol, while a dark-brown buckwheat variety is the honey equivalent of barley wine, loaded with wallops of molasses and wet hay. "Tasters call it 'barny,'" Yanoski says. She then opens a jar of kudzu honey from Alabama, "my favorite right now." No wonder -- it tastes like a grape-and-raspberry candy. "People are always surprised at how many varieties there are," she says. "You can become a honey connoisseur."
To help more people become just that, Yanoski is now reaching out to corporate chefs, schooling them in the wonders of cooking with honey. She also takes chefs on tours of apiaries. "When they see the hives, they appreciate the product more, and they'll use it more. The bees work so hard to make it. It takes two million blossom visits to create this," she says, holding up a one-pound jar. A single worker bee makes a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during its 45-day lifetime.
The lot of many beekeepers doesn't sound much better. "I don't think the future is very bright for people like me," Theobald says. "The earth is a tough place to be in the honey business. It's a very important craft, and it's in great jeopardy of going under."
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Since 1990, he says, the number of bee colonies in this state has dropped from 55,000 to 24,000. Today, there are only about a dozen full-time beekeepers in Colorado, and many of them keep solvent by providing pollination services, not selling their own honey. Small-scale honey producers just can't match the low prices of honey produced by large-scale operations or imported from outside the U.S.
With his eighty or so hives, Theobald produces an average of 14,000 pounds of gourmet honey each year, making him "a big fish in a small pond." (Niwot Honey Farm honey is available at the Niwot Market and at select Wild Oats and specialty stores in Boulder.) "I'm a community beekeeper of the old type," he explains. "I ply my craft in a limited region; my bees are within fifteen miles of my home; I sell my product primarily to a local and regional clientele."
But that's fine with him. In 1900, Boulder County boasted 8,000 bee colonies -- and 23,000 residents. Theobald is doing his best to restore that ratio, doing a job he loves. "Beekeeping is a unique blend of science, entomology and hard physical labor," he points out, "and everything you do benefits someone in some way. It's also a form of agriculture in which nothing has to be killed or skinned or rendered. It's a very positive craft."
How sweet it is.