Pouring a tall one

The weeds are getting ahead of me in the garden and my orderly (more or less, orderly is a relative term, in parts of my life anything that isn’t in a disorganized stack or pile qualifies as orderly) pattern of plants and tidy rows is becoming a jungle of abundance.

I always try to prune the tomatoes and remove most of the axillary growth so most of their energy goes into fruit rather than vegetative growth, but it doesn’t take long after those needy, delicate seedlings are put in good garden soil and get some real sunshine that they become monsters, topping the trellis and sprawling out all over the place. Two small cherry tomatoes have kicked in now, Sungold, which gave me an early cluster as a teaser at the end of June, and Aunt Rubie’s Yellow Cherry. Both are nickel size, very flavorful and perfect for grazing. There’s one more cherry setting an abundance of fruit, but not ripe yet, Brown Berry.

I went up north last week to check the supers on the two-queen colonies (formerly two-queen actually, because they’ve now been either divided or combined). I think of this as my karmic yard. I’m not too big on all that mystical, philosophical stuff, but I do think that in the long haul the good things you do in life somehow come back to you, one way or another. The same can be said for the bad things I suppose, which gives me some comfort when I have to put up with jerks. This is probably why all our early ancestors conjured up their own rendition of hell.

Anyway, back to the beeyard. Harlan had met the landowner, Tom Huddleston, at an auction in the foothills, there was some beekeeping equipment for sale and they struck up a conversation about bees. Tom said he would like to have some bees on his place, Harlan relayed the message to me and a few days later we went out to take a look.

It didn’t look all that good frankly, there was some hay ground to the south, but to the north it was mostly burned out wheat land. I needed a place though, I had a trailer load of bees that I had wintered on Cushman land out on Larimer County Road 4 up against the foothills, ironically only a mile or two from where the auction was where Harlan and Tom met.

The bees that had been wintered on Road 4 were my first bees, 25 packages from Texas I had bought the spring of 1976. These were in addition to the 40 colonies I’d bought from Harlan the previous fall.

Harlan’s bees (now mine) were already on established locations, but the packages were looking for a home and even though I’d had them only a year they’d already had an interesting journey. I started them in the pasture next door, 25 single story hives, and the evening before I was to drive to Colorado Springs to pick them up the man who lived in the house to the north came to the fence and asked “You’re not going to put bees in those are you?” and when I answered yes he replied “Oh, if I get stung I’ll die.” Great, I thought to myself, what the heck have I gotten myself into.

I kept the bees in the pasture until they were well established and in need of a second story, then moved them to a new yard northeast of Longmont. They were doing well and were on an alfalfa flow when I got a call from Ray Edmiston to tell me that they would be spraying the alfalfa at dawn. The “what have I gotten myself into” thought crossed my mind again.

Both Harlan and I were familiar with the pesticide and we both knew if the bees weren’t moved I would lose them. We spent the whole night loading those heavy two story colonies two high in the back of the ’63 Ford, the one Brian has now and has restored so beautifully. It took two trips, and the first light of dawn was showing as we unloaded the last of them.

We put the bees over at the Honey House and later in the summer up on the Cushman land. They hadn’t done as well as they should have with all the moving around and I spent that first winter feeding then to keep them alive. As spring came on there wasn’t much forage for them, and unpromising as it looked, I didn’t think Huddleston’s could be any worse. After the exhausting night moving the bees in the back of the pickup I’d found an old car trailer and had Niwot’s last blacksmith Walt Atkinson work it over so I could turn it into a bee trailer that held 24 colonies and this was their ride to Huddleston’s. I handed the trailer down to Miles and he still has it.

It was slim pickins at first, for the first few years actually. I made a little honey, but hardly covered gas money. Tom was such a great guy, such a supportive and enthusiastic landowner however that I didn’t have the heart to move the bees out, and I stuck with it. Little by little my patience paid off and the honey crops began to edge upward. The biggest payback was in 1983 when we had a clover year. All of that wheat country was yellow with bloom and I must have taken over two tons of honey off those bees. I began double queening about then and for the next 15 years the bees paid me back with a crop of a ton or more each year.

It was no free gift though, I worked for it, I plied my beekeeping skills and did an enormous amount of lifting as I took those tall hives down, reorganized them and stacked them up again, several times in the course of the season. Picture a line of 24 colonies, all as tall as the one in the photo. I was a bull and I was able to do it, and there’s still enough bull left that I can pull it off. (No comments from my friends about the bull part!)

Things aren’t looking good though, most of the surviving colonies elsewhere are not doing nearly this well. This location is still good, I think, because it is the furthest removed from row crop agriculture and the problems new agricultural technologies have brought, systemic pesticides and to a lesser degree genetically engineered crops. Once again the honey crop will be less than 10 percent of what would have been a normal crop just a few years ago, but it is reassuring to see that given a healthy environment, healthy bees, good beekeeping and the absence of damaging chemicals I can still pull it off. This is part of what keeps me going.

And oh, by the way, the guy across the fence didn’t die of a bee sting, but within a couple of years he sold the house and moved away. Don’t know if there was any connection. ❖