An avid bee steward’s guide to learning, acquiring and keeping bees healthy in these changing times

Melanie Margarita Kirby

There are more beekeepers among us these days! A very good thing. However, there are several things to consider for those interested in learning how to become beekeepers (or better put: bee stewards) and integrate their interest into their surrounding communities in a healthy and respectful manner. Bee stewards can promote honeybees and native bees, which include bumbles, sweat bees, leaf-cutters, Blue Orchard bees and the many hundreds more. Bee stewards do not necessarily have to have their own bees – they can accommodate pollinator needs in a variety of ways. This article invites all community members to lend a little attention, as what happens to our bees will affect humans and life on Earth deeply. I will share what the current status of bees is and how we, as community members on this planet we call home, can assist in their protection and promotion.

Back in 2006, the world came to hear about CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder, in which bees across the U.S. and Europe had begun to “disappear.” There has been a lot of funding and research around the world looking for the “smoking gun.” While no single issue has defined CCD and no single remedy has been discovered, researchers, beekeepers, environmentalists, agronomists and farmers think that there are many culprits involved. These include new pathogens, pests, pesticides and chemical-farming practices, loss of habitat, human encroachment and development, weather/climate changes, genetically-modified seeds, and – most succinctly – compromised nutrition from available forage.

So where does New Mexico fit into this dilemma?

The valleys of NM beckon to all, from the birds and the bees looking for available forage to the people and roaches living off of the waterways that make agriculture, homes and communities possible. We all congregate at the same watering hole and share resources. This means that we must look to accommodate each other and establish positive responses and proactive approaches to everyone’s needs.

The very nature of our Land of Enchantment landscape keeps the beekeeping industry as a whole quite small. Our geography and limited water availability make it quite impossible for large-scale, industrial agriculture (including industrial beekeeping) to expand. There are a few of us New Mexican beekeepers who consider ourselves professionals; by this I mean that we rely on our beekeeping and our beloved winged angels of agriculture for our livelihoods. We provide for our bees so that they may provide for us.

How do we “provide” for them? First, beekeepers look to develop and promote sustainable methods and management of our winged livestock. Second, keepers and their bees offer valuable community services in the form of pollination, which in turn plays a very crucial role in our area food production and security. And third, most beekeepers serve as resources by sharing their fascination and educating the public. Let’s discuss these three points in a little more detail.

The first provision requires that area bee enthusiasts educate themselves on the current plight of bees and how to prevent its spread to our region. The increase in “recreational” or backyard honeybee beekeepers is on the rise. At first glance, this is great. However, this has meant a compromise in several areas.

Because our NM landscape is such and because NM beekeeping is limited by it, there are no large producers in the state. There are a few who produce local stock, but not enough to fill the demand. So folks have begun to import bees en masse from out of the region. The higher production zones for bees include California, Texas and several other southern states where their spring commences earlier. These locations are also where large-scale agricultural practices have radically changed the landscape, the water quality and the kind of food/forage produced, as well as the kinds of bees, including Africanized honeybees.

The widespread American practice of larger beekeepers taking their bees to California for the almond bloom pollination is akin to mono spreading around at summer camp: not everyone takes care of their bees the same way and thus illnesses and pests are spread to all. Many of these larger bee producers then make their hive increases in a compromised location – one laden with chemical inputs, and with bees in all stages of health communing. This means that the larger production zones for bees are compromised, making any bees produced in these regions susceptible and carriers of varied ailments. Bees imported from these regions have already had an adverse affect on beekeepers here in NM – from new viral issues to the loss of colonies throughout winter and the remainder of the year to unknown causes.

So for those interested in honeybee beekeeping and for providing varied bee pollinator homes and habitat, it is crucial to find regional stock that has not been overly exposed or produced in compromised areas. It works better for our agro-ecosystem and our bioregion to promote those bees that develop right here in our backyards and our wildways that are “localized” or regionally-fortified. The many new beekeepers with healthy hives will begin to have growth in their colonies and hopefully will share their bees with their neighbors. Local swarms can be transferred from unwanted locations to new abodes (with help from an established beekeeper). This will allow our communities to establish a reliable and hopefully sustainable resource within our tierra.

To find an area honeybee beekeeper, one merely has to visit virtually any farmers’ market. Contact area clubs. For the Santa Fe-based Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers, visit http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/SDCBeekeepers/. For the Albuquerque area, visit www.abqbeeks.ning.com and The NM Beekeepers Association at www.nmbeekeepers.org. The NM Bee Collaborative seeks to provide info and safe haven for declining bee populations (honeybees and 1,400 NM native species). Their projects are a great way to learn about bees, bee lore, wildlife habitat and water harvesting earthworks construction at their outdoor classroom site between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, off the Turquoise Trail. For more info on The NM Bee Collaborative & its sister project, Pollinator Nation, email Laurie Lange at botanicarts@earthlink.net or pollinatornation@earthlink.net.

There is also a newly formed organization entitled The NM Pollinator Project, which focuses on creating pollinator friendly zones through NM. The group will be working with beekeepers, farmers and gardeners, youth and parents and other citizens through education, outreach and capacity building in our communities. Their aim is to build local and regional policy to support healthy pollinator habitat on farms, gardens, school and community gardens sites and wild places. Loretta McGrath is directing and coordinating the development of the NMPP and can be reached at loremcgrath@gmail.com.

It is essential for our communities and wilderness areas to host a variety of pollinator species. The reliance on honeybees for much of American pollination has affected them greatly while also impacting other native and wild bee species. Providing secure habitat for area pollinators and planting pollinator-friendly plants can help add to our area food sustainability and security. For those interested in installing bee homes, visit www.pollinatorparadise.com and learn how to build your own native bee homes out of scrap wood.

Many of these native bees are short-lived with seasonal lifespans that accommodate a particular bloom and then fade out for the season only to return again at the following year’s bloom. Others are wide bloom visitors and can flourish in diversified areas. Planting a variety of blooms – several for each season of spring, summer, and fall – can really add to the overall forage and nutrition available for our bees. There are several great area resources for pollinator friendly plants across NM including Plants of the Southwest and Santa Fe Greenhouses/ High Country Gardens, both with locations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

By offering diverse nutritional forage for our area bees, we will be helping to sustain them through the trials and tribulation of Mother Nature and Father Time. Bees reared on monocrop agriculture that has been exposed to pesticide and GMO threats are ultimately very different and disturbed creatures. Providing diverse habitat and forage means that our bees will be able to maintain their health and immunity response systems. They can then deal with the varied changes in climate and conditions and from introduced threats more readily than if they were fed “bread” alone.

Healthy bees are able to pollinate more efficiently and “economically” by being adaptive to our area cultivars. Pollination by bees produces over 30% of what we as humans eat, including stone fruits such as apples, cherries and apricots, as well as many of our vegetables and nuts. The percentage is actually higher, for without bees, we would be without beef and milk as well. Goats and cows rely upon alfalfa, and bees are needed to pollinate alfalfa. Unfortunately, “Montdiablo’s” recently government-approved, herbicide-resistant alfalfa will undermine organic farmers’ rights and also compromise our health and our pollinators’ health.

It really does take a community to raise bees! And the more we educate ourselves on the complex realities that we have allowed and have been confined by, perhaps the better we can determine what positive course to take. We can look to provide our area pollinator needs with attentive community members right here instead of looking outside for others to decipher and proclaim what we, as a society, should have done, could have done, and need to do.

It is a very splendid sight to see more folks in our communities becoming attentive to the nuances of bug life and how we can assist them during their plight and reverse negative conditions for them – and ultimately ourselves. The increase in backyard beekeepers in urban areas is flourishing. Keeping bees in the city and in rural environments will require respectful management. It is crucial to research the health and genetics of any bees one intends to import from out of the area. Having aggressive bees near highly populated zones may lead to municipality intervention. And having sick bees can spread and devastate area bees and their stewards.

There is much to learn when keeping bees. Working with each other for our pollinators will create a sustainable resource for our food and biodiversity needs. To conclude: not all bees are the same, and the best are those that are right here in your area – they have proven themselves to be able to handle the diversity and adversity of our enchanting lands of NM while minimizing imported threats. Established beekeepers can share their bees during growth and swarm seasons, and interested community members can learn more by joining the area clubs and networks and finding mentors.

Melanie Margarita Kirby is a native New Mexican from Tortugas Pueblo who keeps honeybees from Las Cruces to Taos. An aspiring bee breeder, Melanie operates Zia Queenbee Co. with partner Mark Spitzig. Their home bee farm in Truchas, NM supports regionally-fortified breeding projects with a focus on chemical-free, survivor stock bee breeding. Visit www.ziaqueenbees.com for more info.