On a chilly morning last winter, Tom Theobald refined beeswax in his "honey house," a small brick building on a hillside in Niwot. The lumbering man stooped over an aromatic pot of golden-tinged wax, carefully filtering it of impurities and pouring it into molds. Later he'll remelt the wax to make candles.
A beekeeper for more than 30 years, Theobald makes a part-time living from honey and candles produced from his 80 colonies of bees. But all is not well in the world of beekeeping, and Theobald says there may not be many winters left in the honey house. Like beekeepers all over the country, Theobald opened his hives last spring to find that many of his colonies had simply vanished.
"We send a colony into the winter full of bees and heavy with honey, and they just disappear," says Theobald. "We haven't seen anything like it before." Bruce Boynton, CEO of the National Honey Board, says that in Colorado some commercial beekeepers lost as many as 40 percent to 60 percent of their hives last winter. Nationwide, beekeepers reported losses of 30 percent to 90 percent in 2006. Stumped, researchers named the phenomena Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and the few bee research laboratories in the U.S. put their scientists on the case.
Beekeeping is critical for agriculture, explains Boynton. In Colorado, many farmers rely on commercial beekeeping operations to pollinate local crops, from onions to fruit trees. Says Boynton, "If there are fewer bees, pollination fees are going to go up, increasing food prices to consumers."