PHOTOS: Maintaining healthy hives on Colorado’s Western Slope

Bees hover over Apiguard varroa mite treatment at a hive site near Rifle Gap.
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Derrick Maness started beekeeping at the age of 14 with Paul Limbach at Western Colorado Honey. Now, years later, Maness owns Colorado Mountain Honey and operates 75 different hive locations that stretch north to Trapper Lake, west to Palisade and south to Woody Creek.

Under Limbach’s watchful eye as a teenager, Maness spent the last 17 years acting as Limbach’s right-hand man, slowly rising through the ranks to become operations manager before eventually taking over ownership.

“It stuck with me throughout my teenage years,” Maness said. “As he got older, I liked being able to pay him back. He had a great influence on my growth.”

Derrick Maness stands next to mentor, business partner and longtime friend Paul Limbach outside the Ball House in Silt.
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In the world of beekeeping, every year is different, mainly depending on the weather. Last spring’s late freeze had a significant impact on the bears’ natural food supplies, leaving them hungry and determined to find whatever they could get.

More than 21 of Maness’s hives have suffered frequent bear attacks this year, causing thousands of dollars in damage and loss. All of Maness’ hives are surrounded by electric fences, but hungry bears have found ways to burrow under them.

Hive boxes damaged by bears sit at the Colorado Mountain Honey farm in Silt.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“Bears don’t just go for honey,” Maness said. “They go for the bee larvae.”

The mite that destroys Varroa

In addition to bear attacks, bees also fight a destructive parasite called the varroa mite.

The varroa mite has plagued beehives in the United States for at least 30 years, after being transferred from a honey bee species in India to the popular European honey bee. Because the European honey bee is more docile and produces the most honey that is transported around the world.

Limbach found evidence that the varroa mite had arrived in his bees in 1996.

Derrick Maness checks the level of varroa mite infestation in a hive near Rifle Gap.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent
A bee with damaged wings shows the effect of a mite that destroys varroa.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Because mite infestations are relatively new to European honey bees, they have not yet evolved to have a natural defense mechanism to combat them.

Hawaii was the last United States affected by the varroa mite, which found its way to the island state 10 years ago.

“I believe about 30,000 natural colonies were destroyed in one year; almost wiped out Hawaii,” Maness said.

Simply leaving the bees alone and letting them fight the mites on their own does not work, unfortunately. The colony will eventually die.

Derrick Maness pours alcohol into a cup as he checks the number of tick infestations in a hive near Rifle Gap.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“It’s like fleas with your cat — if your cat had fleas, you’d go and take care of it,” Maness said. “We know the original bee has something to do with it, so it’s just going to take time. Things don’t get better overnight.”

Reducing ticks

Mite monitoring and mitigation is currently the most beneficial thing Maness can do for the health of their hives and bees.

“You have to know what your infestation level is before you know what to do with it,” he said.

Low infestation levels can be treated with essential oils first. Hives with higher levels of infection need certain medications, such as Apiguard, which is specifically designed to combat the varroa mite.

Maness hopes to start making videos for social media to educate other beekeepers in the area about the importance of varroa mite awareness and control.

“If they don’t take care of their hives, but I take care of mine, a week later my hives can be sick again because their bees are dying and my bees are going there to get honey,” Maness said.

Derrick Maness tries to locate the queen while checking the varroa mite infestation in a hive near Rifle Gap.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent
To estimate mite levels at a hive near Rifle Gap, Derrick Maness shakes a cup full of bees so that any mites fall into the lower cup.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

To monitor infestation levels, Maness takes samples from the hives by measuring 300 nursery bees and placing them in a beaker with a strainer at the bottom. That cup is then placed inside another cup, killing both bees and mites. Maness can then count each tick and determine the level of infection.

“It’s not like cattle or horses; “I can’t go to them and say, ‘Oh, they don’t look good,'” Maness said. “When you see them in your bees, you’re already in deep trouble.”

To understand the size comparison of a tick on a bee, it was like a person with a tick the size of a basketball.

After the varroa mites are removed from the bee sample, they sit at the bottom of a cup of alcohol.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“That’s why it got the name varroa the destroying mite, because it destroys wherever it goes,” he said.

Almond farmers

As the first snowstorm of the upcoming winter season hits, attention will begin to bring the bees down from the high country and move them to warmer climates like Palisade or Parachute. Finally, the bees will take an extended vacation in California during the winter months to enjoy the warmer climate, but more importantly to help with almond production.

Derrick Maness uses smoke to deter bees in the hive while checking mite levels.
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Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at

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