During summer, Boulder resident Julie FinleyRidinger is busy. Her vegetable, fruit and flower gardens are overflowing, and she awaits honey from her 14 bee colonies.
A longtime beekeeper, FinleyRidinger teaches beekeeping classes through the Colorado State University Extension for Boulder County, and worked for more than 10 years as the garden director and beekeeper for Boulder’s Growing Gardens. Here are excerpts from a conversation with her:
You’ve tended bees for more than 15 years. How did you get started?
I walked past a beehive one day and just knew I had to do that. So I quit my job and moved to a small organic farm east of Boulder. A friend gave me all her old beekeeping equipment, and I caught a swarm and started keeping bees. I also asked beekeeper Tom Theobald, who owns Niwot Honey Farm, for advice. Tom gave me a list of books to read and told me to check out the Boulder County Beekeepers Association.
Why do you like the top-bar beehive?
The top-bar hive is a little bit different than a Langstroth hive, which is the white tower of boxes most people imagine when they think of bees. The top-bar hive has a horizontal space for the bees and allows bees to draw down wax in a more natural and organic shape. This hive gives them a lot of opportunity to draw worker or drone combs or, if you’re lucky, a queen cell.
The bees’ instinctive ability to make their own home is something that no other creature on the planet does because bees create wax out of their own bodies. They don’t harvest it from a tree, they don’t bring it from a plant.
How is your beekeeping helping the local food chain?
Honeybees are efficient pollinators and this is a key reason I keep them.
The bees in my backyard are pollinating my neighbors’ trees and gardens, so they’re not creating a lot of food here in the neighborhood. I have colonies out at different organic farms where the bees will pollinate a lot of acreage with a wide variety of crops. The bees are helping create thousands of pounds of foods and help close the loop of where our food comes from and how it’s pollinated. We’re not going to have food unless we have bees.
Why don’t the bees fly off at the farm or from your backyard?
Bees have an exquisitely refined navigation system along with a relationship to the queen. They have their own pheromones and their own sense of communication. A bee will fly within about a two-mile radius, and the location of the hive is where they’re going to reside to do their pollination.
What about problems like bee stings and bears?
When I first started keeping bees I wore a lot more protective gear than I do now, and I had a much bigger reaction to the sting. But now if I get a sting it doesn’t really swell up, itch, and it’s not painful at all anymore.
We haven’t had a problem with bears, but during bear season we have an electric fence around the hives.
Describe the annual cycle of a beehive.
The bees follow the seasons like most living things. In the winter they huddle up and conserve warmth and consume honey they’ve harvested over the spring and summer. In the spring, the maple and willow trees are putting out pollen, the crocuses are up and the weather is beautiful. So the bees are coming out in the spring looking for nectar in flowers like dandelions, which is an important crop for the bees. The queen will now start to lay more and more eggs.
Everything expands in summer. The bee population grows, there is more activity in the hive, the buzz gets louder, and more honey is produced. And then as fall comes and only the asters and the goldenrod are left in the garden, the bee population will go back down to the size of a rugby ball once again. And by the grace of God, they’ll make it through the winter again, keeping the cycle going as long as possible. The beautiful thing about bees is that they never give up. There can be only three bees and a queen and there’s an egg. They’re eternal optimists.
There’s a lot of discussion about Colony Collapse Disorder. Have you ever had your bees disappear?
I’ve had colonies of tens of thousands of bees — so many bees it’s hard to get the lid on the box, and I’ve come back a number of weeks later in the summer and there’s not a bee in sight.
From where I’m standing at the side of the hive looking in, it’s really a message that there’s some serious poison in the environment that’s affecting how long a bee can live, what kind of food it can tolerate, and what level of pesticide it can tolerate. But it’s not a mystery to me what’s happening. It’s a mystery why the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is unable to protect our environment, and it’s a mystery to me that, as a culture, we seem to think we’re not part of our food chain. There’s no silver bullet that’s gonna come and say it’s because of this or that virus or some crazy fly that’s involved in it. It’s systemic. All things are connected.
What has beekeeping taught you?
What goes on inside the hive clearly reflects what we need in our world today. Each bee has its own job and is living for the wealth of that colony. Everything is very harmonious. Bees get a bad rap and lot of bad PR, but the hive is the most cooperative, community-minded thing I’ve ever witnessed. There is something very sacred going on in there. Something that’s very humbling.
Visit www.bouldercountybeekeepers.org for more information.