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Distillery gives bees a boost with rooftop hives

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Vodka plays in to the mix

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Honey bees are dying the world over, prompting alarming cautionary articles about the possible destruction of the food chain and incipient devastation to human populations that depend on bees in ways most people don’t recognize.

But here in Carbondale, one local business is doing something to work against what is known as the global honeybee colony collapse disorder [HCCD] by putting two hives on the rooftop of the Marble Distilling Company Luxury Inn & Lounge [or MDC for short], a small distiller of vodka and other spirits that opened up last year.

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“We’re doing it partly to keep everything in balance and keep the flowers blooming,” said Carey Shanks, part owner of the distillery at 150 Main St., adding, “we’re trying to add some pollination to the local flora and fauna.”

But the business also hopes to use some of the honey produced by the bees [much of it has to stay in the hive for the health of the bees] to make a new, honey-flavored vodka drink, said Shanks’ wife and MDC co-owner, Connie Baker.

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The MDC’s two experimental hives were placed on the roof two weeks ago, said Baker, by well-known local beekeeper Bob Bailey [Bailey was floating the Colorado River this week and unavailable for comment).

But the idea originally came from Mitch Meyers, the woman who heads up a “proof agency” in St. Louis, Mo., which has been working with the MDC to get is product line up and running.

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Meyers, said Baker, also happens to be a beekeeper with a second home on Missouri Heights, and a friend of Rhonda Black, owner of Catherine Store (a gas station, general emporium and liquor store on Highway 82).

One day when Baker and Black were chatting and Baker mentioned she was fascinated by bees, Black said, “Oh, you have to talk with Mitch about it, she’s a beekeeper,” Baker recalled.

Baker tasted honey from Meyers’ bees and quickly became an aficionado of bees, so much so that Shanks bought her a hive last year, which they placed on their property in the Town of Marble [which gave the distillery its name and is the source of the marble chips through which the MDC’s vodka is filtered].

It was some time later that Baker was talking about her interest in bees and Bailey, the beekeeper, happened to be sitting nearby and overheard the conversation, Baker continued.

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Bailey suggested putting hives on the rooftop, offered to help make it happen, and the bees are now living on the roof.

The roof, Baker said, is “a great place to put them” because they are out of the way of their two natural enemies — stumbling humans who might knock into a hive unwittingly, and hungry bears who definitely would attack a hive to get at the honey that bears love.

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“This is bear crack,” joked Baker while showing a reporter the two hives.

Bailey, she explained, has a shop in Carbondale where he built their hives, and is well known in the Roaring Fork Valley as an advocate of bees and the work they do to keep life on the planet moving along.

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In fact, said Shanks, “Once you get him started [on the subject of bees], he’s hard to stop.”

The hives are not the typical stacked boxes one sees along the roadsides all over the U.S., but are instead what are called “top bar” hives, in which the bees build their combs in suspension from slats of wood laid across the top of the hive chamber.

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The couple said they are not anticipating any trouble between the bees and their patrons — whether at the lounge and bar or in the hotel rooms upstairs — because bees pretty much keep to themselves unless disturbed.

Even when they are swarming, according to Baker [quoting Bailey], bees are gentle under most circumstances.

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In fact, Baker said, she has been told that if building contractors come across a swarm in their work demolishing or building homes, they should get in touch immediately with a beekeeper rather than destroy the hive and obliterate the swarm.

“Swarms are valuable,” Baker said. “People want them.”

That, she added, is because a swarm generally is an indication of a colony of bees on the move with a new queen, looking for a place to locate a new hive, and are easily established and quickly productive.

Baker said they do not expect to get “a ton of honey this year” from their two hives, because it takes time for the bees to get settled and start producing at volumes that can be raided by humans.

But next year, she predicted, she will be able to pull honey and pollen out of the hives safely, and use the two products in whichever way she can devise, which already includes plans for “a special release of honey vodka.”

The bees, Baker said, can fly up to five miles to “forage” on flowers such as dandelions [Carbondale’s ubiquitous town flower], borage and hops, among other plants.

In fact, Baker said, she is planning to start planting hobs and borage [a leafy bush with blue or purple flowers] in flower boxes at the distillery, to provide the bees with some at-home provender and show them she cares.

“We need more bees in the world,” Baker said with a smile.

Published in The Sopris Sun on May 12, 2016.