Black Forest Honey owner and prominent local beekeeper John Hartley had left his house on Herring Road, north of Swan Road, Tuesday afternoon, headed for an errand at Phil Long Ford at Chapel Hills.
He didn't make it past Black Forest Regional Park before he was turned around and informed of the spreading Black Forest Fire.
His dog was with him, and he called his wife Donna, a local artist and muralist, to meet him back at the house.
Another beekeeper friend happened to be in the area and ducked in to check on the Hartleys, quickly helping them load some possessions into their vehicles — "papers and documents mostly, pictures and stuff," says John.
From the moment he'd been turned around to that hectic moment of fleeing, only an hour and a half had passed.
"We were lucky," says John, referring not only to getting out alive, but specifically being able to at least grab a few things, when many of his neighbors (with whom he's since talked from the nearby motel he's calling home) weren't able to grab anything.
The Hartleys had bought their home 30 years ago, in 1983. In ’89, John started launched Black Forest Honey.
He's since raised queens, become an active leader in the Pikes Peak Beekeepers club, done countless removals and captures of bee swarms, and grown his own hive count to around 165 recently.
At his home, he was forced to leave behind 35 hives that he's fairly certain all perished in the fire — each hive containing tens of thousands of bees — along with all of his beekeeping and removal equipment and a decent supply of new hive materials he stocked to sell other club members.
"I don't know — it's hard to tell if they swarmed out," he says. "That's the tendency when there's smoke, but the smoke was extremely bad and heavy. It was so fast and intense with the heat ...
"I just hoped and prayed that maybe they'd make it okay," he says. "It was my life, my wife's life — we got the dog ..."
Now, he or Donna are taking the time to regroup and begin organizing with their insurance companies. He says he has six months to decide whether to rebuild on that site or not. "We're gonna have to think about that," he says, "but we probably will."
This morning alone, John says, he fielded five swarm calls around the area that he had to refer to other club members. (Spring and early summer are the natural swarm times, when feral and managed hives tend to split at a maximum capacity.) Calling upon all the optimism today will allow him, he says, "We'll recover and come back. It's just a setback."
By now, we know that the Hartleys' is only one of at least 360 heartbreaking stories emerging from the Black Forest Fire. And nobody's attempting to equate the loss of bees here, and a livelihood at least temporarily, to the larger toll of home destruction and human displacement and trauma.
But to a guy like John Hartley, "It really hurts."
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