The black sheep beekeeper

Local ‘bee guardian’ bucks convention on chemical-free beekeeping


We’re only 10 minutes late, but we feel years behind. 

A woman is talking about queen supersedure as my friend and I take seats in the converted barn at Philanthropiece in Longmont. My friend raises an eyebrow at me.

A baker’s dozen or so of us have gathered over the Easter weekend to hear Corwin Bell teach a two-day intensive on chemical-free, top-bar beekeeping. It’s supposed to be a beginner’s class, but many of our classmates have kept bees for years, some professionally.

Corwin Bell holds up a swarm catcher. (Photo by Caitlin Rockett)

A fellow student admits this is the third time he’s taken Bell’s class: “I had a hive die this winter, so I obviously still have more to learn,” he says. 

Bell exclusively uses top-bar designs — single-story, frameless, horizontal nests where bees build comb that hangs freely from removable bars — instead of the more commonplace Langstroth hives, which stack a colony vertically in multiple boxes using frames with hexagonal-patterned foundations on top of which bees draw out comb. Practitioners like Bell, mostly backyard hobbyists, believe top bar is a more sustainable method of beekeeping because it more closely resembles a colony’s habit in the wild, like a hole in a tree or a hollowed out log. 

Of course not all apiarists agree with this theory, nor do they agree with Bell’s adherence to chemical-free practices. That’s because nearly 50% of honey bee colonies in the U.S. died last year. This devastation stems from a combination of problems that entomologist Samuel Ramsey calls the three P’s: parasites, pesticides and poor nutrition.

“The threshold for honey bee losses each year, the economic injury threshold for a commercial beekeeper, is about 8%,” says Ramsey, an associate professor at CU Boulder. “We have been losing between 33% and 52% of our bees every year for more than a decade now.”

Caitlin Rockett looks at a newly installed Golden Mean top-bar hive. (Photo by Christi Turner)

Monoculture farming and large-scale agricultural pesticide use make bee colonies extra vulnerable to their most dastardly foe: the varroa mite. It’s in the management of this reddish-brown parasite where Bell diverges most from his fellow beekeepers.

“When I decided to get into beekeeping, I went online and everything was about chemicals, and [the bees] wouldn’t survive unless you [use] chemicals [to treat for mites],” Bell says. “And I was like, ‘Well, there’s no chemicals applied to [wild bees,] and they’re there year after year.’” 

That’s when Bell decided to become a “bee guardian.”

During the first day of class in April he makes his goal clear: “I’m not here to teach you how to harvest a lot of honey. I’m here to teach you how to take care of bees.”


Corwin Bell grew up in Eldorado Canyon. He still keeps bees at his childhood home today, about 10 top-bar hives of varying sizes humming under the heavy shade of a grove of poplars. 

Caitlin Rockett A ‘Bee Guardian’ plate at Corwin Bell’s property in Eldoardo Canyon. (Photo by Caitlin Rockett)

“I started in the forest down here; there were always wild bees,” Bell tells me as he cracks open a Cathedral Hive, a larger-sized top-bar design of his creation. “And so as a little kid, I would go up and climb the trees and watch them.” In addition to the hives before us, Bell also keeps hives in Crestone and for other individuals and organizations around the area.  

He got interested in top-bar hives through a pamphlet from Colorado beekeeper Marty Hardison, who was a proponent of the less-conventional method. Bell sees the top-bar as a more “natural” option for beekeeping, both in form and function, and he and other practitioners typically claim it offers “unlimited” brood nesting (space for egg laying), easier accessibility for the beekeeper and no plastic or wax foundations that can hold on to pesticides. He ultimately views the top-bar design as a better mimic of what bees would use in a natural setting. 

During our class in April, Bell openly discussed being the black sheep of the Boulder County beekeepers for eschewing chemical miticide treatments. Instead, Bell cuts out mite-infected drone brood comb, identifiable by domed caps. Varroa have a proclivity to reproduce in these male-bee cells, and the cap confines them. Cutting the brood before drones hatch removes mites as well. Bell has to check and cut brood comb often.

His goal is to breed hives that develop genetic resistance to varroa, which is a goal shared by commercial queen-rearers, though those operations still use chemical management. All of Bell’s hives are colonized by feral swarms he’s captured.

Caitlin Rockett A collection of top-bar hives on Corwin Bell’s property in Eldorado Canyon. (Photo by Caitlin Rockett)

“[Other beekeepers] tell me, ‘Your hives will die if you don’t treat them.’ Well, you can see they’re not dying,” Bell says, motioning across his collection of working hives, some of which he says have survived over a handful of years. “What I’m having the biggest trouble with is dropping temperatures” in the winter.

Tim Brod, owner of Highland Honey in Longmont and a commercial queen-rearer who treats for varroa, doesn’t buy it. 

“You can go and scratch open some drone brood and get an indication [of your infestation],” he says, “but it’s a little bit like looking at a satellite of one area of I-25 and saying, ‘Oh, there’s no traffic in Denver.’ You only looked at Thornton.”

Brod keeps bees at a much larger scale than Bell, managing an estimated 400 hives. He’s got no problem with backyard hobbyists keeping top-bar hives as long as they treat for mites. But he’s unapologetic in his dismissal of any notion that the top-bar design is a more natural form of beekeeping. 

Corwin Bell tests out some Cathedral Hive designs in Eldorado Canyon. (Photo by Caitlin Rockett)

“People are unaware of the amount of time and attention it takes to keep bees alive,” Brod says. “Whether it’s a top-bar hive, Langstroth, hexagonal, Soviet-bloc era chunk of ice or a Navy sea locker, the shape of the hive is just a distraction from the amount of time and energy that it takes. If we have different hives, it might take a little bit more attention with hive X, it might be more challenging to work hive X, but that’s OK. You just have to know that it takes a little more time to work that hive. But if you make up a story that a hive is way more natural, you’re really screwing the pooch. You’re making a fantasy that I think is really a disservice to yourself, your neighbors, to the bees, as an environmentalist.” 

Ramsey says that non-treatment beekeepers are “almost always small-scale.” It’s just not feasible in the commercial arena. 

“You would lose 80-something percent of your stock [of bees] and all of your money,” he says.

Honey bees contribute approximately $18 billion per year to the U.S. economy, according to Ramsey, through pollination of major crops like apples, melons, pumpkins and, the biggest of them all, almonds. Large-scale beekeepers ship their bees thousands of miles in some cases to pollinate crops, across multiple states through various seasons. It’s how most professional beekeepers make their money, and at least part of the reason why non-treatment is such a non-starter in the commercial beekeeping space: Without bees, our food system looks totally different.


Beth Conrey is the owner of Bee Squared Apiaries in Berthoud, where she oversees around 150 hives. Like Brod and Bell, Conrey teaches classes. Like Brod, she disagrees with non-chemical methods of mitigating varroa.

Caitlin Rockett Langstroth hives at Bee Squared Apiaries in Berthoud. (Photo by Caitlin Rockett)

“I will use a certified organic miticide, because that’s a better balance for me,” she says as we overlook her property butted up against the Little Thompson River. “[No chemical treatment] is great as long as you have nonstop funds to continue to buy bees, because they’re dying, not just from [varroa] but from a whole host of other things. We are not going to genetically breed mite-resistant bees in the field in the time needed to do it. I admire people who try to do that, but I think they’re fools as well.” 

She sees organic pesticides as a “transition” and actually agrees with Bell that the true answer, “the long-term strategy, is breeding.”

“It’s actually fixing all the disasters we’ve created that have made this thing so very violent,” she says.

Conrey calls beekeeping “the red-headed stepchild of agriculture,” a small but necessary block of 120,000 apiarists at the mercy of industrialized crop farmers who are allowed, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to spray their fields with neonicotinoids, which are known to kill colonies. (The late Boulder-based beekeeper Tom Theobold’s Niwot Honey Farm was part of the lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency that led to neonics being taken off the market for non-commercial gardeners.)

Caitlin Rockett and Christi Turner inspect comb in their first top-bar hive, May 7, 2023. (Photo by Ross Palmer)

“There are these [chemicals] that are known contributors [to bee death], and why are we exempting agriculture from this discussion on it?” Conrey asks. There’s no federal mandate for industrialized farmers to warn nearby beekeepers when they are spraying; there are only voluntary lists, like FieldWatch. She, Brod and Bell have all lost colonies to drifting neonicotinoid pesticide spray.

Ramsey, who worked for the USDA’s Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, doesn’t deny there’s an issue with neonics, but he says the real problem is monoculture, which is much larger, deeper and harder to fix. 

“Any perturbation can destroy the entirety of the system; a new insect that has simply evolved a new way of attacking a crop can kill all the crops. It’s happened to us multiple times. It’s happening now with bananas,” he says. “Because we have this system of monoculture crops, we are incredibly reliant on pesticides and if we banned neonics, we’d be back to another [harmful chemical], when what we need to do is reform the system itself and develop a better way of [farming] so that we are not just on this constant treadmill and never getting anywhere.”

Beekeepers have to take a tip from corporate America, Ramsey says: band together and lobby Congress for change. 

“We have a tendency in the U.S. to talk about how we have such an amazing system that is free of corruption, but what we created was a system where corruption is legal. So you have people paying politicians to do specific things that in other countries would be considered a bribe or problematic. And for us, we call it lobbying. The more money you have, the more your policy concerns are more heavily weighted in that system. If beekeepers are not joining together as a lobbying force, oftentimes their concerns don’t make it into policy. And that is something that we have to figure out how to manage. Are we going to come together as a bloc and start moving things forward, or are we going to reform the system and take money out of politics?”

‘Curious economics’

The problem is, there’s no money in beekeeping, Brod says. 

“We have curious economics in the United States where the only way large beekeepers can stay alive is by being in bed with Big Ag to do the almond pollination.”

Brod estimates he stopped running his colonies out to California 15 years ago. The return on investment is meager if you don’t own everything you need, like tractor trailers, and the possibility of disease increases. Conrey’s smaller operation has never transported bees for large pollination events, but she would like to work with local orchards.  

“Urban beekeeping is a double-edged sword,” Conrey says. “Because it’s a really steep learning curve to get to be a good beekeeper. Most people survive two to three years out of it. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It’s incredibly ungratifying to kill bees, even if it’s not really your fault, and it’s really hard to stomach that all the time.” 

Every beekeeper, differing methods aside, has a reverence for this collection of insects that work as a single entity. The honey bee is endearing to people, perhaps, because it does what we cannot: It acts for the greater good each and every time. 

“If we can collectively act like our colonies, our life would be much better, but we don’t,” Conrey says. “And we’re not going to start anytime soon. What’s that saying? If you’re not invited to dinner, you’re what’s for dinner. That’s where bees are. They are what Big Ag is eating for dinner.” 


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