Cafe Society

The buzz on beekeeping and urban agriculture

Above the heads of passersby, James Bertini's bees are flying in circles around the entrance to their new home: a small tube set in the red brick wall at Denver Urban Homesteading. Though the bees are still orienting themselves with the ins and outs of their glass-windowed beehive, soon they'll "be coming in like airplanes going onto a landing strip," says Bertini.

In celebration of National Pollinator Week, Denver Urban Homesteading has installed a new observation beehive so customers can watch honeybees at work and learn about them and other native pollinators.

Bertini, who owns urban agricultural center and local market Denver Urban Homesteading with his wife Irina, promotes beekeeping as a way to save and protect honeybees as well as develop food resources. More and more urbanites are discovering beekeeping as a means of making their own food, says Bertini, who also keeps bees at his home three blocks from the market. In Denver residential areas, two hives may be kept per lot; a typical hive is home to 25,000 to 50,000 bees -- and one queen bee.

According to the Pollinator Partnership, five years ago the U.S. Senate designated the final week in June as "National Pollinator Week," addressing the issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinating animals include bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and more.

Honeybees, which have a natural lifespan of three to six weeks, have been in a drastic decline since 2006 due to a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, or CCD, which scientists believe is the result of a combination of pesticides, viruses and mites. At a recent meeting of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association, Bertini said that some old timers declared this year to be one of the worst for honey, due in part to a lack of moisture that has lowered the number of blooming flowers available for bees to collect nectar.

Some believe that environmental pollution is the greatest component of CCD; Bertini says that Denver Urban Homesteading promotes foods and ways to raise food that don't involve the use chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. The practice of urban homesteading involves raising and growing food in your own backyard for both self-sufficiency and the understanding of where your food is coming from. "People shop in supermarkets because it's convenient," Bertini says, adding that many consumers blindly rely on grocery stores and aren't conscious of how and where their food was grown or produced. Beekeeping is just one part of a system of urban agriculture that involves practices like growing heirloom produce and raising chickens.

Honey, a supersaturated liquid that's about 40 percent fructose, is a great substitute for sugar, notes Bertini, who uses his honey to sweeten his morning coffee and oatmeal. Bertini's bees, like all honeybees, produce their honey by regurgitating nectar collected from flowers, which they transform to more than 80 percent sugar by fanning their wings to evaporate moisture. These small pollinators fly at about 15 mph, beating their wings 230 times a second. One teaspoon of honey is a lifetime work of for about a dozen bees; one gallon of the sweet substance may take a million miles of bee travel and visits to two million flowers.

Bertini's domesticated bees live in artificial hives with wooden frames containing a honeycomb-patterned food grade wax; the queen bee lays eggs (called the "brood") while workers fill the frames with honey. Once the bottom portion of the hive is filled with brood and honey, a new segment of hive called a "super" is placed on top for the workers to continue filling with honey while the queen is excluded by a screen, preventing her from laying eggs in the honey in the super that will be collected for human consumption.

The taste and color of honey varies depending on where the bees have been collecting their nectar. At Denver Urban Homesteading, Bertini sells five different kinds of local honey and will expand to 20 types by this fall. He has a new honey that is made by bees in hives above 9,000 feet in a National Forest; others come from bees that collect nectar from alfalfa or alpine wildflowers.

Denver Urban Homesteading's year-round indoor farmers' market features other local and organic foods like raw milk, heirloom produce and seeds, homemade chocolate, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat and more. Bertini offers beekeeping classes and sells beekeeping equipment like suits and hives.

Denver Urban Homesteading, located at 200 Santa Fe Drive on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, is open Thursdays and Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Pictures continue on the next page.

Bertini inspects beehives at his home on Kalamath Street, three blocks from the market. A new observation hive installed at Denver Urban Homesteading. Bees enter and exit the indoor observation hive through a small tube. Bertini holds two types of honey for sale at Denver Urban Homesteading.

Pictures continue on the next page.

Supers in the warehouse of one of Denver Urban Homesteading's bee farmers. Tables at Denver Urban Homesteading set up for the Saturday local farmers' market.

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Melody Parker
Contact: Melody Parker