Bees are all the buzz

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Veteran beekeeper at Hudson Gardens shares vast knowledge of honeybees with growing audience

By Vicky Gits

Bob Shiflet not only has a way with bees, he has a biochemistry degree and a vast knowledge of bee lore that he’s not afraid to share.

People who want to learn more about honeybees or who want to start cultivating bees in their own backyards should meet Shiflet, a South Jeffco resident and the head beekeeper at Hudson Gardens.

The former Lockheed-Martin director and semi-retired aerospace defense industry technical consultant has been tending bees for about 20 years, and for the last six years he has supervised the beekeeping operation on a volunteer basis at Hudson Gardens, which is best known as a concert and events center in the summer.

Located on the eastern bank of the South Platte River and surrounded by trees, water features, ponds and a golf course, plus an infinite supply of flowers and plant life, Hudson Gardens is an ideal place for beekeeping, Shiflet said during a tour of the beehive compound recently.

More people are interested in beekeeping since Littleton changed its laws a couple of years ago to allow up to four backyard hives. (Beekeeping is still illegal on residential land in unincorporated Jefferson County.)

"Littleton allows up to four hives per normal lot, but I recommend two to be a good neighbor," Shiflet said.  

About the same time Littleton legalized beekeeping, Hudson Gardens decided to expand its education program to include more about bees, said Melanie Feddersen, education manager at Hudson Gardens.

They moved the hives to a better location, added more hives and introduced informal monthly "Meet the Beekeeper" classes from May through September on the third Saturdays of the month from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. There are also more formal classes for dedicated hobbyists.

There are 16 active hives in a fenced-off area with a view of the river and the bike path. Each hive has eight to 10 frames in each box. Each hive generates about 80 pounds of pollen (a protein food) and 100 pounds of honey after the first season.

The first thing to know is, contrary to common wisdom, honeybees are really not that interested in stinging people, Shiflet said, recalling a group of 75 kindergartners who came to the gardens to learn about bees.

A huge swarm of bees was in a tree at eye-level near the apiary, and the children observed the colony unscathed.

"When bees are swarming they are the most docile, unless they are looking for a new place to live," Shiflet said, adding that it's possible to grab a handful of honeybees without getting stung.

In the process of taking care of his own 200,000 or so bees in various locations around the area, Shiflet has been stung more times than he can remember. Mostly he works "naked," meaning without protective mask or clothing. As a rule, honeybees are gentle insects, Shiflet said; "they only defend themselves when threatened."

He says the bees, which he calls "the girls," will tell him if he is moving too fast or his "aura" isn't right. If a person stays calm and moves slowly, honeybees won’t sting, Shiflet said. Bees also are less likely to sting people wearing light-colored or white clothes, Shiflet said. (Note: If you do get stung, don't squeeze. That only pushes the venom in farther. Use a credit card or similar object to scrape the stinger and venom off the top.)

Yellow jackets are another issue. They are more likely to sting, and they’re also capable of attacking and wiping out an entire beehive, which explains why several yellow plastic yellow-jacket traps hang from the trees in the apiary.

To differentiate between a yellow jacket and a honeybee, Shiflet has the following advice: "If it's furry, you shouldn't worry. If it's shiny, watch its heinie."

He swears the best cure for a bee sting is to tape a copper penny on the wound.

The growing interest in backyard hobby beekeeping is due to "folks being attuned to sustainable living, wanting to be natural or organic in their food choices, and caring about making a difference," Shiflet said.  

In one season, each hive can produce up to 100 pounds of honey, of which 40 pounds can be harvested. The remainder is left for the bees to survive the winter. All of the honey collected at the gardens is given away.

The Hudson Gardens honey is not technically "organic" but can be labeled as "natural," meaning no chemicals are used in the process. The honey isn't pasteurized and can last virtually forever, Shiflet said, adding that edible honey has been recovered from an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Many people ask about African or "killer" bees. Such bees are "subtropical" and mostly confined to southern states and New Mexico; they can't survive in Colorado, Shiflet says. 

Shiflet urges people not to destroy a swarm if they find one in their yard. He does not charge to come to someone's home and remove a swarm of bees, although some beekeepers do charge for the service.

Shiflet believes it's in the beekeeper's best interest to protect the bees, plus the beekeeper gets to keep the bees and potentially the product they can make.

Keeping bees is not just a hobby; it's a mission.

"The bees need help," Shiflet said. "Hopefully this helps me pay it back and forward, so I'm told at some point, 'Well done, faithful steward.’ … I do believe that sometime you'll have to look over what you have done with your life. No one wants to just take up space and use valuable oxygen just for themselves."

For more information, visit www.hudsongardens.org.

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.

Meet the Beekeeper at Hudson Gardens

Registration is not required. The sessions are open to the public and free with paid admission to Hudson Gardens ($1.50).

The sessions are held from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on the third Saturdays of the month (June 16, July 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 15).

• Beekeeping classes are offered monthly (except May, June and July).  on pollination, honey harvest and beekeeping basics. To register, visit www.shop.hudsongardens.org. Topics include introductory beekeeping for the hobbyist, seasonal management of honeybee hives, hive management systems, honeybee pests and diseases, hive inspection, installing nucleus hives, harvesting honey and overwintering hives.