Meet Western Colorado beekeeper Paul Limbach, a second-generation pioneer of high-altitude beekeeping
A HARVEST STORY
Your honey dipper holds a harvest story. The work of 12 bees over their entire lives can almost fill a teaspoon. We don’t fully understand how bees do it. Flower nectar is transformed through a mysterious process of enzyme activity and evaporation. The food industry cannot replicate it, though it mightily tries.
In search of the real thing, take the back road to Divide Creek. Where CR 346 takes a jog toward the Colorado River, slow down. Pull into a gravel parking lot and find a log tiny-home, the Western Colorado Honey Store. A shop without a shopkeeper. It runs entirely on the honor system. Choose between shades of gold, labeled by specific wildflower, or Western Slope origin. Try Trappers Lake Flat Tops Fireweed. Or Rabbit Brush, Alfalfa, Sweet Clover. Or Honeydew. Each has its own character – spicy zip, or woody pine. Or taste a citrusy rose layered under and over a heady, sweet familiar warmth. It’s hard to choose. Maybe you’ll bring home a few jars. Or a bulk half-gallon jug. Either way, you‘ll come back. Because this rare product of high-altitude beekeeping is as locally sourced as it gets.
THE LIFE OF A HONEYBEE
Honeybees work solely to feed their colony through the winter. Bees make hexagon cells of wax, filling, and capping each. They max every inch of hive space in a good summer – all to feed future generations of bees. Today’s brood will soon tend the hive and hunt for nectar after today’s worker bees finish their six-week lifespan. Every act is done in the service of those who will come next. In this way, every bee is a parent, though there is technically only one mother, the queen.
A wise beekeeper understands when and how and why to take just enough honey to keep a hive in balance. They do this by expanding a hive to give more space when needed. Or contracting a hive by splitting it, creating two colonies from one. Finding balance is about knowing not only honeybees but also climate. And flora, nectar, pollen, rainfall, pests, disease, and solar fencing. At elevation, one must also understand the additional challenges of high-altitude beekeeping, which is knowing how all of the above are pushed to make it in this rugged place we live. Because truly, if you’ve kept bees in a place long enough, you may come to sense the heart of the land itself.
It’s like the adage – know farmers, know food. Know beekeepers, know bees. Meet Paul Limbach, the man behind the Honey Store and its honor system. “I’ve found that most people are trustworthy if you give them a chance,” Paul says. He also admits that selling honey is far from his favorite part of his profession. “I’ve never enjoyed jarring it up, peddling it around.”
Stand with Paul in a beeyard as he checks on his bees. Watch as he decides what they need. He takes in the wild roses and lupines, considering a predicted heatwave, looking to see what’s happening inside each hive. It’s clear. His favorite thing about beekeeping is the creature itself.
A STORY OF GROWING UP IN WESTERN COLORADO
Paul started running hives as a child in the 1950s. His father, Ed Limbach, kept 400-500 hives in the Grand Valley between New Castle and Parachute. Paul tells stories of how he and his dad inspected every single frame until they spotted a queen. He and his brother Fred used to accompany their dad to an annual Colorado State Beekeepers Association convention in Salida. He usually now hosts this gathering, bringing dozens of beekeepers to Silt each June. The weekend kicks off with a potluck affectionately called the “Beekeepers Ball.” Back when Paul was a kid, however, attending the event meant packing his bike. His dad pulled off the road at the top of Independence Pass, sending him and his brother coasting for miles down the gravel road past Twin Lakes. On the way home, they repeated the pull-off and sped their way down to Aspen.
In the 1970s, after earning a BS in entomology from Colorado State University, Paul returned to his father’s beeyards. Winters are downtime for beekeepers. So a true child of the Rocky Mountains, he spent part of his twenties working at the Aspen Alpine Lodge for room and board, skiing every day.
A FAMILY BUSINESS
He eventually bought the beekeeping business and the home he grew up in. A beautiful 1913 stone house with a barn from the 1880s, built by one of the region’s first homesteaders. You’ll see signs politely asking you NOT to enter, because the barnyard is now home to the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation, started in 1984 by Paul’s wife Nanci. The organization rehabilitates most species of wildlife, including mountain lions, beavers, otters, raccoons, eagles, other raptors, and bears. (Yes, bears next to a beeyard!) The goal: returning these animals to their natural habitat to survive in the wild.
“Our son Andrew used to help with the honey harvest. Uncapping the comb and loading the frames into the honey extractor,” Paul says. He adds, “but beekeeping isn’t his thing.”
So Paul has brought up countless beekeepers. He as mentored many, ever-willing to listen and offer suggestions, encouraging, consulting with apiary researchers, trying new things, and sharing what he has learned.
A SENSE OF PLACE
On the property, you’ll find a Frontier Museum where you can walk through an 1890 parlor, kitchen, and bedroom. An adjacent Beekeeper’s Museum displays a manual-crank honey extractor. You’ll find other tools so timeless and made-to-last that Paul and his team occasionally raid a historic display if a situation warrants it. When they learned of a chance to provide a home for the old 10-foot square Camp Hale post office, Paul and Nanci transported it to the ranch. The 1940s-era postboxes that served the 10th Mountain Division during WWII wait for structural support before students from Aspen to Palisade visit on field trips.
In the American beekeeping scene, Paul is considered a pioneer of high altitude hives. But he doesn’t take this recognition comfortably. He credits his father’s mentor John Holzberlein as the true pioneer. The beekeeping industry has changed a lot in the past fifty years. Paul has evolved with it, responding to changes in season, forage, climate, and the economy with a pioneer’s eagerness to explore new opportunities.
For example, when his father ran bees, average harvests yielded 150 pounds per hive. Now, most regional averages hover at half that amount in a good year. When Paul started, winters lasted longer. Beehives used to stay in one place year-round, and the business centered around honey. No longer. Beekeepers now rely on multiple sources of income, from providing pollination services to selling pollen (using a pollen screen that Paul developed). Many sell beeswax, candles, lip balm, and all sorts of products made from beeswax.
As other commercial beekeepers retired or decided to get out of a shrinking industry, Paul bought their hives. He slowly grew his operation to 1100 hives in 1980, and up to around 3000 hives today. It has not been easy, especially at higher elevations.
THE CHALLENGES OF HIGH-ALTITUDE BEEKEEPING
Long periods below freezing mean bees cannot leave the hive for extended periods of time. Since they will not defecate inside their home, they “hold it” for months at a time. This can lead to a honeybee disease called Nosema. Another challenge of high-altitude beekeeping – warm weather followed by a quick freeze, when Spring snow can trap moisture in the hive, causing mold.
In the 1980s, Paul tried moving some of his bees to a warmer climate. Like snowbirds who flock to Florida resorts in December. Paul chose Texas, Big Bend National Park, near the border. Paul loaded up 150 of his strongest hives and trucked them on a flatbed to the border. He talks with awe about the whole Rio Grande Valley washed in purple Texas Blue Bonnets and the blooming cactuses.
Paul tells a story about a year when his mentor, friend, and fishing buddy John Haefeli, a fourth-generation beekeeper, met him down there. When packing up their bees to drive home, it took all day to load their flatbeds. In those days, they did it by hand, not with forklifts and pallet boxes. They finished loading close to midnight and decided to get some miles behind them overnight. Then a border patrol spotted their loaded trucks. The officers needed to see if they were carrying something other than bees in all of their tightly-spaced boxes. Off came the straps, the boxes, the bees …
MODERATE CAUTION AND GOOD PLANNING
Years later, when invited to provide pollination services in California almond groves, Paul became one of the first beekeepers to try this. Critics of this practice voice concerns about stressing bees and exposing them to disease. But Paul approaches this the way he seems to approach most things. With a moderate sense of caution and good planning. Derrick Maness, who has worked with Paul for 20+ years since high school, settles the hives into their winter home in late fall. He gives them months to acclimate and to build up their brood before the almonds bloom in February.
“Colony Collapse is real. But I have not seen it in any of my hives, and there is no one silver bullet to explain it,” Paul says. He observes that beekeepers whose hives are constantly on the road, moving from almond groves in California to fruit orchards in the Southeast, seem to suffer decline more regularly.
One somewhat new challenge of high-altitude beekeeping is caused by market demands for higher-protein beef and dairy. Ranchers now want higher-protein alfalfa hay, which requires cutting before the plant fully blooms. “This used to be the main source of food for local bees. Now, we need to look elsewhere for nectar flow,” Paul explains. He shares how the bees themselves adapt. Western Colorado honeybees now forage on flowers (mostly considered weeds) that did not grow in this region 50 years ago. These include fillaree, which makes red pollen. And Russian knapweed, and star thistle.
CHANGE CAN BE GOOD
Some changes have been good for bees. Paul observes that he has not lost a hive to pesticide poisoning in almost 20 years. He credits the EPA’s de facto ban on spraying Furadan in response to outrage over the pesticide’s impact on birds. (Furadan is considered by many to be the most toxic of all food crop pesticides. It is potent enough in its granular form to kill a bird with one sand-like pebble.) Paul locates summertime beeyards in the high-country to avoid contamination by roadside and agricultural spraying. He pulled the first and only U.S. Forest service permits for beekeeping on the Flat Tops, and works honey trades with ranch owners from Meeker to Hayden and as far away as the Little Snake River on the Wyoming border.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WESTERN SLOPE BEEKEEPER
With more than 80 beeyards spread far and wide, Paul’s crew gathers on weekday mornings before 7:00 AM. The team visits all 3000 hives every 10 days or so in peak season.
Imagine long days, lots of lifting, staying focussed with bees buzzing around your face – some agitated, many just curious. Paul does not wear gloves. They could sting his hands at any point of a hive visit, but they don’t. To help calm them, he lights a smoker packed with sagebrush and juniper. Paul pulls off the lid of a two-deep Langstroth hive. He pries away a canvas cloth designed to prevent comb construction on the lid. He gently brushes aside a cluster of bees so he can remove a patch of errant honeycomb. Hundreds of thousands of bees from 32-48 boxes buzz his bee helmet. Cicadas screech from the nearby meadow grass, yet Paul stays calm. His bees know him. And he knows them.
A BEEKEEPER’S PARADISE
Here’s a perk of high-altitude beekeeping. Driving from one beeyard to the next means taking backroads through some of the most spectacular wilderness in North America. On a good day, there’s a lunchtime fishing break at a crystal clear high country lake.
Paul points down a ravine. He and his dad scuttled down this steep embankment to get to a fishing hole only they knew about. Lakeside, he watches the clear water until he spots a flash of silver in the shadows. Paul ties on his favorite leach fly. He casts. Soon, he lands a mammoth trout somewhere between 15 and 18 inches, the kind most people would brag about. Paul does not pull it from the water for a phone shot. He sets it free without a remark and casts again.
ALL YOU CAN DO
With one more beeyard to check before heading home, he’s soon back in the truck. He takes a favorite route over the Flat Tops. Along the way, he watches the roadside to see if the fireweed will come in strong this year. As he approaches the beeyard, he rolls down his window and talks to the ranch manager about a predicted heatwave. You can hear the rushing White River. Warm breezes carry the scent of wild roses into the truck. In the distance, Paul’s bees fly skyward, iridescent balls of light catching the setting sun.
“All you can do is do all you can. And then hope for the best,” Paul tells the rancher, speaking of the drought. Then he drives to his beeyard, inching carefully through a meadow of knee-high grass and sweet clover. These are words to live by in beekeeping, and really, in all you can do.
LEARN MORE about high-altitude beekeeping.
Get to know the Colorado State Beekeepers Association.
LEARN MORE about the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation, started by Paul’s wife Nanci Limbach.
FIND MORE about MP’s favorite Locally Sourced food, retailers and artisans.