Hive Anxiety

In Lyle Johnston's lone beehive, a drowsy clump of bees staggers across a plastic honeycomb frame. They are in a semi-dormant state, more concerned with survival than with honey or the current queen. A warm, un-wintery buzz hums from the hive, which sits near a grove of old cottonwoods at Johnston Honey Farms in Rocky Ford. The nearby warehouse is full of metal drums, each holding 650 gallons of honey. But now it is the off-season, and Lyle Johnston misses his bees.

"I put most of them in semi trucks and send them off to pollinate the California almond crop," he says, a little dispiritedly. By now, Johnston's 4,000 hives (not counting the one sitting back home by the cottonwoods) are strung out across hundreds of acres of almond orchard near Merced, California. Next month, when the trees begin to blossom, the Johnston bees, having settled in, will go to work.

One of the many things Johnston admires about bees is their work ethic.
"They are like tiny little athletes," he says, "and my job is to train them, to see what they can produce. They are far sharper than human beings. You can move their hive--you can move it a thousand miles away--and it still takes them only a few hours to get their bearings. And they are magnificent housekeepers. The cleanest creatures on earth. California," he adds, with a touch of pride, "is 100 percent dependent on my bees."

Agriculture types estimate that California almond growers need about a million bees to pollinate their crop each year--but only 250,000 native California bees are available to do the job. The other 750,000--arguably the most skilled migrant labor force on earth--come from Colorado. "And Utah, Florida, Idaho, the Dakotas, all over," Johnston says. "There is no competition. They need all the bees they can get."

Honeybees have a long and noble history. They are thought to have arrived in America shortly after the Mayflower, brought over by Europeans who recognized their importance not just in pollinating crops, but in making honey and candles. Native Americans, whose own crops were pollinated by such disparate forces as the wind and the daddy longlegs, reportedly called bees "the white man's bird" and considered the insects a sign of encroaching whiteness.

Bees adapted well to America. As beekeepers spread, bees went with them, each hive dividing every spring until wild (or feral) hives were everywhere. At the start of the twentieth century, when beekeeping was as widespread as it would ever be, the notion of transporting bees across state lines because of regional shortages would have been unthinkable.

As unthinkable as the idea that wild hives could approach extinction.
"Chemicals started it," Johnston explains. "They wiped out a whole lot of bees with pesticides." Then, in the early Eighties, a series of mites and viruses moved in on what was left of American bees, domestic and otherwise. "Two-thirds of the commercial bee operations in Rocky Ford failed in the late Eighties because of the Asian viruses," Johnston says. "And the wild hives were decimated. I used to find them out in the country all the time. Now I haven't seen one in years."

This is disturbing to Johnston--not just because of the dire environmental consequences, but also because the fascination with bees he developed as a child has never abated. A third-generation beekeeper, he grew up around his grandfather's 800 Fort Lupton hives and has enjoyed unraveling the complicated biology of bees ever since. "Think of this," he offers. "A bee sucks on a petal, draws out nectar, goes back to the hive and throws it up. I don't know if you'd want to put it this way, but honey is basically the throw-up of bees."

The unlikely side effect of the bee viruses is that a guy like Johnston, who assumed he would continue on as a small-time beekeeper, is now a bee baron. Not only do his bees work out of state all winter, but they are also in great demand at home, where the same melon and cucumber farmers who once decimated the insects with pesticides now beg Johnston to place his hives in their fields. "Actually, they were desperate for bees around here last year," Johnston says, "which shows you how bad it is."

As a result, Johnston has been far busier than his beekeeping forebears ever were. "I live like a hobo out of my truck in California three months out of the year," he says. "I'm forty years old, but my body is older from lifting all the hives. Nothing about this business is hydraulic. You need a linebacker mentality to get stung all day. But the thing is, I love to be stung. Truthfully, I just feel better if I have fifty to a hundred stings a day. Actually," he adds, "it's not bees that will kill you. It's teenagers."

This may be a reference to his oldest son, a business major at Colorado State University who has said he won't go into the bee business. "But who knows," Johnston muses. "That real world he talks about may not turn out to be perfect, and being with bees is a very good life. I'd rather be stung all day long than drive on that Mousetrap."

At the end of last summer, however, Johnston drove through the Mousetrap and on to Glenwood Springs for the annual meeting of the Colorado Bee Keepers Association, of which he is the reluctant president. In the old days, he says, the annual meeting was little more than an excuse for camaraderie and a scenic family vacation. These days the meetings are meatier. Association members have begun to wonder whether their annual honey booth at the Colorado State Fair is really enough promotion to heighten bee awareness. And if bees are to be kept around, where can they find prospective beekeepers?

Among the unlikely candidates was Ann Shurtleft, a fiber artist from Pagosa Springs, who attended the meeting in search of tips on how to keep bears out of the hive in her backyard and to reach out to other bee enthusiasts with multiple sclerosis. Self-administered stings, Shurtleft insists, are the only things that have kept her from becoming a complete cripple.

"I've had MS for eight years," she says, "and I've been at the point of desperation. I'm not into pain and suffering, but before the bees, I could barely walk from the couch to the bathroom, and I live alone. I would have tried shark bites."

Instead, she obtained six honeybees and, lifting each one with tweezers, allowed each bee to sting her on the leg while she uttered "a few choice words," she recalls. "Two and a half hours later, I could walk." Now she takes forty stings every other day and feels well enough to have become a bee activist. "If you're not very concerned about the fate of bees, you should be," she warns. "Bees are a national resource, but no one seems to bother thinking about it."

The Boy Scouts of America, for example. "They've canceled the merit badge in beekeeping," says Jerry Webb, proprietor of the Beekeeper Company in Littleton. "Why? That's what I want to know."

Webb has been keeping bees since sugar was rationed during World War II, and he prides himself on 35 years of teaching bee-related skills at grade schools, community colleges and the Denver Botanic Gardens.

"Really fine people are beekeepers," he explains. "It is so rewarding. When you're working with bees, you gotta be thinking bees, and it keeps you focused. You never, for instance, see an old-time beekeeper with arthritis. I'm 67 myself, and I play tournament racquetball.

"Say you spent the initial $350 to get set up with bees," he continues. "From now on, at parties, you're gonna be doing all the talking--not about children or politics, but about bees."

So evangelical is Webb on the subject of bees that--really, this is just a rumor--he teaches backyard beekeepers to hide their hives so that they will not run afoul of that other Webb, his honor Wellington. "For that matter," he says, "my CPA is the mayor of Littleton, and I can't get him to see why it should be legal to keep bees in that city, either. All it takes to wreck things for beekeepers," he adds darkly, "is one neighbor who doesn't know the difference between a honeybee and a yellow jacket."

The beekeeping Webb insists that 95 percent of all stings come from an insect other than a honeybee, which is usually far too busy with its complicated honey-making lifestyle to bother with human beings unless they're beekeepers, in which case they can't avoid getting in the bee's way. Nevertheless, he says, most municipalities in and around Denver have included bees in zoning ordinances that prohibit such "nuisances" as barking dogs and improperly parked trailers.

Webb has been proposing various exceptions for years--most of them involving six-foot-high screen fences, no more than two hives, and the written consent of neighbors. Still, he had never heard of an exception being granted until the Daniel Marion case came before the Denver Zoning Board last fall.

Marion, a high-school art teacher and part-time forensic reconstructionist, had no idea that bees could be so political when he installed his hive in a neighborhood near City Park last summer.

"I just use a lot of honey," Marion explains, "and prices were going up. From what I read, I soon found out that bees were not dangerous but rather beneficial."

Besides, Marion found he enjoyed putting on a bee suit and checking up on his hive's occupants. "They settled in directly," he recalls. "They would fly off to City Park or the Botanic Gardens for nectar. In the first season, I produced sixty pounds of honey."

And a corresponding load of controversy. A neighbor complained to Denver zoning authorities one mild afternoon when some local boys spied Marion's hive and began throwing rocks at it. The bees boiled up briefly, and Marion was summoned to defend his hobby in court.

First, though, he did a bit of research. Rather than make a case that beekeeping was a "common and customary" use of a backyard, as other would-be honey producers had done, he planned to argue that his bees had been caught up in a case of mistaken identity.

"My neighbor said my bees were hanging around dumpsters and building nests in his garage," Marion recalls. "Bees would not do this. This is something a wasp or yellow jacket might do. Bees do not like grease or hang around it. They have work to do."

Marion argued his position before the zoning department's Board of Adjustment last October.

"I believe he made a very strong case," recalls Senior Zoning Specialist Charles Meredith. "He and his witnesses were very careful to calm people's fears regarding the aggressive behavior of what people think are bees. And we were moved by the current status of the bee mite and the population of bees."

This, no doubt, was due to star witness Jerry Webb, who weighed in with a stirring speech about the dangers of a bee-less community. "I told them they're gonna end up sterile," Webb recalls. "I told them about the calls I get from master gardeners, saying hey, all my fruit trees are in bloom, and where are the bees? I told them people did not realize how many feral colonies used to live in all those cottonwood trees along the Highline Canal, and that they're all gone. We asked them for their support."

And in a move that still stuns and delights Webb, they got it. On December 13 Marion was granted permission to keep his hives. According to Meredith, Marion's was the first such zoning exception granted in at least forty years--possibly the first since domestic bees were "common and customary." To qualify for it, Marion had to install a six-foot-high screened fence and get the signed approval of certain neighbors and the Denver health department. He has already carried out those orders. In fact, he says, most of his neighbors had no idea bees were living on the block, and once they knew, they didn't care.

"I am not the savior of bees," he cautions. "I don't even know that much about bees yet. But the other day it warmed up a little and they began to fly a little, and that was a good thing to see.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff