Skip to main content

Steamboat Magazine

Hobby Keeping with the Bee-bee Sitter

09/28/2018 11:33AM ● By Alesha Damerville

Images and article by Alesha Damerville

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – For every queen bee, you find 10,000 others working to keep the colony going. The potential for growth in a “nuc,” or nucleus colony (a smaller bee colony broken off from a larger one) is astounding; it has the ability to multiply by 50 every seven days. “There are probably 40,000 bees in each one of our hives,” says Shannon Defries, self-proclaimed “bee-bee sitter” for Innovative Ag Colorado. 

Defries moved to Steamboat in 2014 to study biology at Colorado Mountain College. She joined the school’s beekeeping program and club during her first year at CMC, and has been involved since. 

Defries’ interest in bees began in seventh grade, when she first read the book “The Secret Life of Bees.” “I was obsessed all throughout high school, but never got my hands on any bees until I moved to Steamboat,” she says. 

Her experience working with bees grew exponentially from there, initially working in commercial bee keeping and now hobby beekeeping for Innovative Ag. “In commercial beekeeping, technically, bees are livestock. Current commercial beekeeping practices seem to be less sustainable.” 

Defries believes that hobby keepers are just as important as the people who own thousands of hives in the county. 

“Commercial bees and feral bees (the kind you’d find in a tree in the woods) are so different,” she says. “A commercial bee’s lifespan is around three or four years, if it’s really well taken care of. A queen of a feral colony that thrives and has adapted to all the variables in its environment can lay eggs for up to eight years.”

“Summer bees have a shorter life span; they cycle through really fast,” Defries says. “In the autumn, they start rearing the winter bees that fight through the winter and keep the core of the hive at 92 degrees through the low temperatures. It all depends on who’s born when.” 

The ideal core temperature for hives is 92 degrees, but temperatures can reach much higher than that in the summer. “The bees go into A/C mode and fan the hive out,” Defries says. “When things get too hot, that’s when you will see the bees ‘bearding’ out of the front of the hive. When it gets cold enough, the bees sort of disengage their wings, yet vibrate the same muscles to keep warm. They cluster around the queen and have a similar pattern for keeping warm as penguins – taking turns in the center all winter. Bees can power through extremely low temperatures this way.”

Bees can perform a variety of roles in the hive. When a bee first hatches, it’s a ‘nurse’ and its job is to care for the queen – feeding her royal jelly, as well as fanning and ripening nectar into honey. Foraging is a position left for older bees, which are more expendable and can be put into more dangerous situations. Queen bee and worker bees are female. “If you see a bee out on a flower collecting nectar or pollen, she’s female,” Defries says. “The males are called the drones. They’re lazy; they stay inside the hive and eat honey and hang around until the yearly mating flight.”

When a queen bee is nearing the end of her life and laying fewer eggs, the bees begin preparing their next queen. The worker bees will build a cell that looks similar to a peanut and grows out of the bottom of the comb. Specific pheromones tell the other bees who the next queen will be, so they build her a cell for safety and feed her royal jelly. The new queen will eventually double in size. She adds a bit of her royal jelly to each egg she produces, after which all the bees except the queen survive on nectar. 

Royal jelly is made up of fatty-acids, lipids and minerals. “You could live off royal jelly only,” Defries says. “But you can’t accumulate that much.” Humans use royal jelly for a number of treatments – studies show it has antibiotic, immune-system regulatory properties, and helps lower blood pressure. 

Taking care of the bee population supports ecology, the economy and benefits all life. Without bees and their pollination, food scarcity would be at an all-time high and your favorite bee-derived products would be a dream of the past. 

For more information on Innovative Ag, visit