The sound hits you like you’re walking late into a booze-fueled Breckenridge Music Festival cocktail party. It is constant; the pitch never wavers. Neither do all of the little wings flapping 230 times per second.
I am standing outside Larry and Mary Ellen Gilliland’s home in Silverthorne. The beaming late-summer sun has caused us to seek refuge in the shade, a few feet from the tens of thousands of honeybees that live behind their house. The Gillilands have been keeping bees since 2012, two of a half-dozen or so Summit County residents to import the furry little arthropods to high altitude, where short summers and frigid winters make it harder for them to survive—but where wildflowers supply exceptional nectar and the bees, in turn, churn out top-tier honey.
Larry Gilliland decided to raise bees at 8,700 feet one January five years ago after a friend, a retired schoolteacher with a few hives at home, told him, “You’d make a good beekeeper.” A lifelong accountant who spent 20 years as Summit County’s treasurer before retiring in 2006, Gilliland was intrigued, figuring it would be a rewarding way for a retiree in his 70s to pass the time. But when he looked into purchasing bees for the coming summer, he learned it was already too late: all of the suppliers’ bees were spoken for (in Colorado, you often need to order bees six months in advance).
Undaunted, Gilliland spent the next year probing the avocation’s nooks and crannies, assembling equipment, looking for a mentor, even joining the High Land Beekeeping Club in Denver. When he sought advice from Front Range beekeepers and mentioned that he lived in Silverthorne, most scoffed, “Good luck at that altitude.”
The problem with keeping honeybees at 8,700 feet is that our flowers—their food source—are buried under the snow for seven to eight months a year. Bees are amazingly resourceful and able to adapt to environmental challenges, but when they can’t get food for so long, survival becomes a long shot. In each of the past two years, Gilliland has been lucky: two of his three hives “wintered over,” or lived to see the spring. That 67 percent is a landmark retention rate for Summit County; by comparison, during Gilliland’s first two years keeping bees, none of his six hives wintered over.
As he explains this, a bee is bumping me in the shoulder like a sparring partner, a defensive tactic to suss out the new guy lingering near their homes, says Mary Ellen Gilliland, a well-known local author and historian. You can’t blame the bee for being wary: due largely to pesticides that contaminate the pollen and nectar they gather and ultimately weaken their hives, honeybees are disappearing across the country. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, over the past 70 years the bee population in the United States has been halved (from 5 million managed colonies in the 1940s to just 2.5 million today), with winter losses from 2006 to 2011 averaging a whopping 33 percent. In Summit the attrition rates are even higher, and it’s a fair question to ask why the local beekeepers bother.
The answer varies by the individual. Larry Gilliland harvests honey—40 pounds last year—because he likes to drizzle a spoonful over his raisin bran each morning. He and Mary Ellen, parents of two grown children, have filled their empty nest with honeybees, and they wince every time they see their neighbors spray gardens and flower beds with pesticides. The same goes for Michele Wolfe, who has raised bees in Breckenridge since 2009 and would love nothing more than for local municipalities to stop spraying chemicals around town, endangering her beloved, fragile friends.
“The bees make me happy,” says Wolfe, a local bus driver. “They’re just out doing their thing selflessly, flying around making pollen. They’re perfect and amazing little beings.”
It must have taken quite an intuitive melittologist (Google it!) to figure out the genius ways of honeybees, whose resiliency to a host of hardships is difficult to match. An average worker bee lives for just four to six weeks and produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in that time. Lest one view those numbers as unimpressive, consider that those same bees fly up to five miles at a time, depending on their role in the colony, and usually die because they wear out their wings.
When you order a three-pound package of 10,000 bees, it comes with a preordained queen. Queens are larger and longer-lived than worker bees; traditionally they survive for three to five years, though lately their life expectancy has been decreasing due to the challenges facing the entire species.
Worker bees—all of them female—progress through a number of roles in their brief stay on earth. They start as nurses, making “royal jelly” (essentially superfood for bees) that sustains the queen and her larvae. From nurses they become maintenance bees, fanning the honey to eliminate excess moisture. Then they graduate to foragers and are tasked with retrieving nectar from flowers. If they’re still alive after all that flying, they become scouts, whose job it is to locate nectar-rich flowers, then return to the hive and do a little dance to activate the foragers.
The males are called drones. They are substantially larger than the worker bees and do little other than eat and mate with the queen.
“They don’t even help around the hive,” Larry Gilliland observes.
“It sounds like a football weekend to me,” Mary Ellen quips.
In many ways the Gillilands make ideal beekeepers: they’re inquisitive, have time to spare, and are committed to helping bees survive in the high country. They moved to Summit in 1973 after meeting in New York City’s Greenwich Village and spent decades exploring Summit and Eagle counties for Mary Ellen’s reported hiking guides to the area, which were first published in 1983 (Summit Hiker) and 1988 (Vail Hiker). Together, the two books have sold 150,000 copies and been updated 15 times (you can order both online at her website, alpenrosepress.com).
When Larry decided to get into beekeeping, Mary Ellen asked area ranchers—whom she had befriended while researching her twin local histories (Breckenridge: 150 Golden Years and Summit: A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado)—whether anyone had kept bees back in the days of self-sufficient mountain living. Not to their knowledge, the ranchers told her. Larry promptly purchased three unassembled beehives and dumped a package of bees in them, hoping they would perform as advertised. Sure enough, they started making wax to coat the hive and provide pockets for larvae to grow. He was in business.
“I think it’s a great hobby to have when you’re retired,” Larry says while relaxing on the Gillilands’ deck, which stares across the Lower Blue Valley at the Gore Range. “It eats up a good chunk of your social security check.”
Mary Ellen doesn’t ask how big of a chunk.
“There are certain things that longtime married couples don’t discuss,” she says. “And one of them is how much does it cost to be a beekeeper.”
But she will allow that keeping bees is not inexpensive. Typically a three-pound package of bees can be had for $110 to $120, including the queen, who can cost $30 if purchased separately. In fact, so integral is the queen to the colony that worker bees surround her to keep her warm throughout the winter, huddling together in a clump like Antarctic penguins. When their efforts fail and the colony dies before spring, even experienced beekeepers take it hard.
Wolfe, whose friend Kim Maurer got her interested in the hobby seven years ago, lost all of her bees last spring. She thinks they starved. “There was zero honey left in the hive, and they were just stuck in the comb,” Wolfe says. “They basically died looking for food in their hive, in their home. It was brutal, sad. But they didn’t make enough food to make it through.” This May, instead of ordering a standard package of 10,000 bees to place in a fresh hive, Wolfe bought 50,000 bees spread across five frames, which the worker bees had begun to populate even before they arrived. The package cost $175. Wolfe could hardly contain her excitement leading up to the delivery, which came from a Boulder supplier who sells bees across much of Colorado.
“They’ve already started building out their comb, laying babies,” she marvels. “I’m hoping that’ll give them a head start, because it is tough up here.”
To give her bees a better chance at surviving, Wolfe sets up an electric fence in the woods around her house to deter bears that might try to steal the bees’ honey. (For their part, the Gillilands put out wasp traps early in the season to try and snare the queen wasp and preempt any threat to their bees.) Despite the mutual objective that Wolfe shares with the Gillilands—helping bees survive and thrive—she refuses to harvest honey from her hives, just in case they might need it during the winter.
Back behind the Gillilands’ house in September, honeybees buzz to and from their hives, working away. A particularly aggressive bee chases Mary Ellen into a small greenhouse, where she shuts herself behind a door. Mary Ellen doesn’t get stung often, but it does happen three or four times a year to Larry, who once stepped on and smashed his glasses when a group of agitated bees swarmed him without warning.
On the day I visit, the bees are mostly well behaved. It will not be long before Larry harvests his honey (he doesn’t sell it, but he gives surplus jars to friends and has won awards for its taste at the High Land Beekeeping Club), and already the box with the most frames is feeling heavy and full. An old willow tree droops above the hives. Mary Ellen points out a purple clump of lamb’s ear flowers near the greenhouse, then the bright crimson hues on a pack of bee balm. Each is a prime source of nectar for the bees, which means their backyard remains a fertile refuge, a matter of pride for any beekeeper.
Larry pulls out one of the honey-drenched frames from its box and peels a chunk of fresh blond goodness from the wood. He hands it to me. Honey plucked from the hive is not hard like a crystal, nor is it soft and viscous like the honey you buy at a grocery store. It smells and feels pure, and when I touch it to my tongue to let it melt, I decide I would have a hard time not harvesting honey if I were a beekeeper.
“I call it wildflower honey,” Mary Ellen says, savoring her own morsel.
Twenty feet away, the buzzing continues, 50,000 bees working in concert to store enough food for the coming winter. It is the sound of unending production—the eternal chorus of one of the most threatened and resilient species in America, humming a song of survival among the high peaks.