“Bee populations are thriving. There is no threat of them disappearing anytime soon,” said Salida beekeeper Jamie Johnston.
She is known locally for providing honey and other bee products at her store, The Beekeeper’s Honey Boutique, formerly Beeyond the Hive, at 209 W. Third St.
“My family has been tending to bees for 109 years. We are very passionate about bees and the honey industry,” Johnston said.
The knowledge of bees in her family runs four generations deep with the bulk of know-how currently held by her father, Lyle Johnston, also a Salida resident. The family operates Johnston Honey Farms, the oldest and largest beekeeping operation in Colorado.
A professional beekeeper all his life, Johnston started the Colorado Professional Beekeepers Association (CPBA) in fall 2015 and currently serves as president. “The prior beekeeping groups in Colorado were being run over by sideline beekeepers,” Johnston said. “The professional guys that represent the majority in the state needed a voice.”
According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), commercial beekeepers’ hives account for 38,000 of the state’s approximately 40,000 hives. Hobbyist beekeepers, those with fewer than 150 hives, make up the other estimated 2,000 hives.
Research done by the CPBA and the CDA has found bee populations have doubled since 1994, from 19,000 hives to 40,000 today.
“My message is that bees are absolutely in no danger of extinction,” Lyle Johnston said. “They’re doing better than they ever have.”
He said the 1990s was the hardest stretch for bee loss due to pesticides. At that time, he was president of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association.
The decline went from 45,000 thriving hives in the 1970s to less than 20,000 by the early to mid-1990s. The Johnstons lost thousands of hives.
“Last time I had any pesticide kill in Colorado was in 1998 east of Pueblo when they sprayed alfalfa,” Johnston said.
Since the increase of pesticide use, a collaborative effort between beekeepers and farmers has significantly helped the bees.
“We started educating farmers and working together,” said Johnston. “Farmers are more aware of how to protect bees now. They realize they need to have bees to pollinate their crops, and we want farmers to be able to use products they need for their crops to thrive. Without the crops, there would be no forage for bees. We need each other.”
One method of collaboration is when farmers want to spray their crops with any product potentially harmful to bees, commercial beekeepers move the hives to a different location for at least two days.
“When a beekeeper loses hives, it’s most likely due to poor management, not pesticides,” Johnston said. “Often beginning beekeepers don’t understand how to control pests.”
Mites pose biggest threat
The largest threat to the bee industry is not pesticides, but the varroa mite, he clarified. The small mites are similar to a tiny tick and can destroy a hive within three months.
Varroa mites came up from Mexico from some African bees in 1998, Johnston explained. “Ever since it’s been a battle,” he said. “We use natural treatments like formic acid. Honey has formic acid in it already. You have to apply it at certain times of the year to keep pests under control.”
Johnston said honeybees are not native to Colorado or even to North America. The most common bee managed by beekeepers for honey production is the European honeybee, or apis mellifera, according to the CDA website, Colorado.gov/agmain. The bees were “brought to North America in the 17th century by European settlers to provide wax for candles and, of course, honey.”
“If you don’t manage the bees in Colorado, they won’t survive,” Johnston said.
Nationwide, bee populations increased from 2.3 million commercial hives in 2010 to 2.7 million hives in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Numbers from the USDA in recent years show an estimated 2.82 million hives in January 2015 and 2.59 million hives in January 2016. The No. 1 stressor to bees was the verroa mite.