Telling the Bees: Beekeeper Tom Theobald’s passing
Tradition and custom require that, upon the death of a beekeeper, the bees quickly be told their Master is gone, but not to worry, as they will be taken care of. Tom Theobald’s friends made their way to the hives he kept this week to tell the bees of his passing.
Theobald, the preeminent beekeeper in Colorado, passed away Wednesday, Nov. 10. A full obituary and service details are forthcoming.
Miles McGaughey said he first knew of Theobald after he gave him a stern talking to regarding his speeding while McGaughey was a student at Niwot High School in the late 1970s.
In the mid-1980s, McGaughey took an increased interest in beekeeping. Each time he checked out a beekeeping book from the library it had Tom Theobald’s name on the card as the other borrower.
Longmont, Colo., rancher, the late LaVon Pope recommended that McGaughey contact Theobald, a bee expert whose column she read in The Fence Post magazine.
“He was the last bee inspector in the state of Colorado and he did it all for free as a service to beekeepers,” he said. “I always thought he was like the Bee Police, so I kind of kept my head down and avoided him.”
Eventually, he bumped into Theobald and introduced himself. He was invited to Theobald’s home to visit about beekeeping. That day, Theobald said it took only a few minutes to recognize that McGaughey had “the fever” bad.
“That was a good designation that you were crazy about beekeeping,” he said. “For whatever reason, he took pity on me and gave me a lot of his time, effort, and energy. He always answered every question, and he would go out of his way to look at a problem and give his honest assessment.”
PROTECTING THE HIVES
Theobald established the Boulder County Beekeeping Association in 1984 to address pesticide issues in Boulder County. The use of the pesticide Pencap was common at the time, and it was particularly deadly to bees.
As a result of the formation of the association and the organized way Theobald and others communicated to the Colorado Department of Agriculture resulted in the creation of a spray map. This map showed the location of every hive in the county, allowing aerial applicators the opportunity to alert beekeepers when they would be spraying in the area, thereby reducing their liability. Beekeepers had a chance to cover or relocate hives so the applicators could safely treat the area, making it a positive working relationship for all involved.
He and McGaughey trucked over 300 packages of bees from California, keeping the bees in Boulder County thriving after the hives were struck with Colony Collapse Disorder.
“He had a knack in imparting the different kinds of beekeeping — there’s a lot of different ways to skin that cat,” he said. “He would categorize himself not as a commercial beekeeper, but as a village beekeeper. That he was responsible for the flowers and the birds and the bees and the people in a community where he was the go-to beekeeper.”
His particular style of beekeeping, he said, was unusual as he was able to keep two queen bees, working simultaneously in the same hive. That two queen beekeeping system goes against nature in which queens don’t coexist, but instead kill one another.
“However, Tom had the technology and the touch, if you will, for them to coexist and they more than doubled their output when they had that kind of synergy,” he said.
Most hives produce 40 to 80 pounds of honey per season, but McGaughey said one of Theobald’s two queen hives would produce upwards of 400 pounds per season. It is that two queen beekeeping system that is carved into the bench that marks he and his wife, Barbara’s final resting place.
EDUCATING THE MASSES
Theobald was instrumental in helping practically every beekeeper in the state get their start and spoke regularly at beekeeping association meetings. He wrote regularly for Bee Culture Magazine, American Bee Keeping Journal, and he authored the official history of Colorado beekeeping for the Colorado Beekeeping Association.
Theobald had a strong interest in history and the history farm on Highway 66 between Hygiene and Longmont is a testament to that. Theobald filled it with his original beekeeping equipment and a replica of a honey house.
“Most of his legacy is intellectual,” he said. “We’re going to endeavor to keep that alive and to keep talking to people and to keep the education flowing.”
Theobald sold his Niwot Honey Farms honey worldwide, and McGaughey said it was a premium product and highly sought after.
“Of all the things, I would say Tom was an exceptional communicator and he could make the foreign and alien world of insects seem understandable and close,” he said. “He loved his readers. I’ve known a lot of authors of different bee pieces, but the difference was Tom loved his readers and he treated his readers like he knew them all individually.”
He said Theobald was often recognized when out and about for his column in The Fence Post magazine. He relished the opportunity to meet his readers and McGaughey said there are thousands of hives that are the result of beekeepers reading Tom Theobald in The Fence Post.
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