Montrose, Colo., couple turn beekeeping hobby into a full-time business
December 11, 2016
Is it true that eating bee pollen can help control allergies?
John Sheridan believes in the benefits of bee pollen. "It assists your body to build up immunity," said Sheridan, who started eating raw bee pollen mixed with yogurt.
Impressed with the results, Sheridan, of Montrose, Colo., decided to get a few hives of his own. His wife, Sadi, encouraged him to follow that passion.
Two decades later, those few hives have morphed into 300 to 400 hives and a full-time business called Bees in the Trees.
Before starting his bee empire. Sheridan, who grew up in Evergreen, Colo., was employed as a bus driver and custodian, first in the Jefferson County school district and then the Elizabeth school district. In 2003, he started working for a Montrose beekeeper who kept 2,500 hives.
He stayed with his new employer for six years.
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"I learned a lot," Sheridan said. As in any farming industry, he "picked up little bits from all over, talking to other beekeepers and researching on the internet."
Once the couple committed to full-time, commercial beekeeping, it required a permanent move from the snowier, eastern slope of Colorado, where the growing season is not long enough, to Montrose.
Montrose still gets cold, but rather than feeding the bees sugar water or high-fructose corn syrup through the winter, the Sheridans found another way to fill their hives with natural honey.
"We contract flatbed truckers to take our bees to California around the first of December," Sheridan said. "They are used to pollinate the almond crop." California has 900,000 to 1 million acres of almonds, and the growers need two hives per acre depending on wind, rain and other weather factors.
"We move hives into the orchards from 4 to 9 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. daily, prior to the start of the almond bloom (which is about the first week of February)," Sheridan said. "It's a lot of work but the almond growers pay well." After the bees are settled, Sheridan takes the train home. He returns to California in late March to reload the hives and have the bees shipped back to Montrose.
A NICE BREAK
Sandi Sheridan enjoys the trips to California. "I was born into a military family and have lived all over, from coast to coast," She said. "I like the warmth and sunshine." While John does most of the heavy work required at "Bees in the Trees," Sandi pays the taxes, does payroll and gets paperwork to their accountant. She also helps process the honey.
By the time the bees return to Colorado, their population has increased by at least one-third.
"We pull the frames filled with baby bees, transfer them to other boxes, get worker bees to tend to them and add queens to make two or three additional beehives." This helps the couple to replace any bees they lose from natural causes.
Queen bees, which live from one to four years, lay one egg in each of the many thousands of hexagon-shaped cells in a beehive. The worker bees also store honey and pollen in other cells near where the queen has laid eggs. Three weeks are all that is needed for bees to grow from egg to hatchling. Once hatched, the young bees are immediately productive, cleaning their own cells out for the next egg to be placed and doing many other jobs within the hive.
Sheridan moves the bees the night before they are needed around a specific crop. That way "they wake up, smell nectar produced by flowers and go there first," Sheridan said. "One-third of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat have been pollinated by honeybees. Crop pollination is a multi-billion dollar industry."
The bees start on one bloom and move to another, which results in cross-pollination. While naturally foraging, bees gather grains of pollen and carry them from bloom to bloom. Bees use the nectar from the flower to make honey and that honey/pollen is used to feed members of the hive. Bees produce a lot of honey, so beekeepers remove the surplus to be processed and sold.
"If we kept our bees in Colorado from October through the middle of April, they might not have enough of their own honey left to eat. We leave 60 to 80 pounds in each hive so they can eat naturally," Sheridan said. "Pollinating the almonds not only keeps them fed but it also helps strengthen them."
BRINGING THEM BACK
Each April, Sheridan and his wife start spreading the bees through 14 different spots from Olathe to Ridgeway, Colo. The bees are left mostly on their own after June when the hives are placed in yellow or white sweet clover or alfalfa fields.
"We get a much greater yield on our produce because of those bees," said Pamela Friend of DeVries Truck Farm in Olathe, who is a customer of the Sheridans.
If crops need to be sprayed for any reason, the Sheridans are called ahead of time so they can move the hives.
Sheridan looks in on things every two weeks, leaving extra frames for honey storage. "I'll pull out a frame that has honey on it, shake it horizontally, and see how much rains out into the hive. This helps me to see how much is actually being produced."
During the honey harvest, the couple uses a food-grade product called Honey Robber to move the bees back. It is placed above the hive, and "the bees move away from it so we can pull that box of honey, take it to our shop and process it."
What is extracted is strained but not filtered. The process removes pieces of wax and other hive debris and allows little bits of pollen to go through. Then it's poured into glass jars and sold to people who love pure honey — or need help with their allergies. ❖