Bee Careful: Beekeeping + Protecting Pollinators in the Grand Valley

 Photos by Cat Mayer

Photos by Cat Mayer

It was a hazy, Saturday morning in summer, and dozens of bees were having a late breakfast — or early lunch — among the buffet of blooms at Chelsea Nursery outside Clifton.

Oblivious or indifferent to the visitor walking through the outdoor nursery, the bees dutifully collected pollen and nectar, their food, from the assortment of flowers. In turn, those bees were pollinating the nursery’s plants and any others they visited on their return flight home.

Pollinators like wasps, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees, contributed $29 billion to U.S. farm income in 2010, according to a Cornell University study.

The reason? Foods such as apples, melons, pears, sweet cherries, and tomatoes rely on animal pollinators to thrive. Even alfalfa, a primary food source for livestock, needs animal pollination.

“A lot of plants we see growing wild, [pollinators] are absolutely essential to the reproduction of those plants,” says Bob Hammon, a former Colorado State University extension agent in Grand Junction and current consultant for farmers. “We wouldn’t have melons, tomatoes and peppers, our tree fruit, our squash, without pollinators.” He estimates there are likely 300 to 400 species of bees in the Grand Valley alone.

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With such a dire need for pollinators in this area of orchards, farm stands, nurseries, backyard gardens, and restaurants featuring locally-grown produce, it’s no surprise residents are supporting the health and growth of the current pollinator population.

Locally, those efforts include things like beekeeping, planting public pollinator gardens, and encouraging homeowners to utilize their property for pollinator habitat.

Of these activities, beekeeping is probably the most time consuming — but definitely the most delicious. Michael King knows this all too well. The retired Colorado State Patrol major tends to 12 hives on two properties with his wife, Barbara.

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The Kings were introduced to the importance of honeybees in 2012, when Michael visited Bookcliff Gardens nursery for suggestions on what to do with his “horrible” garden. “Do you have a problem with pollinators?” he was asked. “Yes,” King answered, though it had never occurred to him until then.

The couple took beekeeping courses through Western Colorado Community College (WCCC still offers those courses) and learned the importance of pollinators, how to harvest honey, and so much more. The Kings also joined Western Colorado Beekeepers Association westerncoloradobeekeepersassociation.org, a resource for beekeepers or people who want to buy local honey. Furthermore, they turned their yard into a pollinator garden with dozens of flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season.

Planting such a garden is one of the easiest ways locals can support pollinators. “Your goal if you are planting a pollinator garden is to plant a variety of blooms for season-long bloom,” says Tony Urschitz of Chelsea Nursery, because this gives the most species dining options for months on end.

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Urschitz and Chelsea Nursery owner Stacey Stecher helped Meredith Walker, executive coordinator of the Grand Valley Audubon Society, and Shannon Hatch, restoration coordinator for RiversEdge West, plant public pollinator gardens. Both gardens are visible from the Colorado Riverfront Trail. The first is in the Audubon Nature Preserve, 610 Dike Road. The second is a 4-acre stretch of land along the Colorado River near Las Colonias Park.

With increased public awareness of pollinators’ importance to the local growers and economy, Hatch hopes volunteers will help restore the garden near Las Colonias, which boasted more than 1,300 plants from 54 species when it was planted in 2013.

Volunteers can contact her at shatch@riversedgewest.org or 970.256.7400 with questions about what needs to be done. “I understand the plight of the pollinator,” Hatch says. “We need to create as much habitat as we can.”