Melanie Margarita Kirby
When I was first introduced to beekeeping as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, nearly 20 years ago, I had no idea that the mysterious and lively world of beekeeping would captivate me so. The very essence of bee stewardship invited me to pay attention to the flora and biodiversity all around us. As stewards of our landscapes’ well-being, there are opportunities to observe the majesty of the daily synchronicity of our animal, plant and elemental paisanos. I found the interconnectedness of it all—from fields to flowers to food to medicine—awe inspiring and humbling.
And So Goes the Bloom
The manifestation of spring bloom begins with many challenges. With the warming weather and the melting of the Rocky Mountains, cold dense air descends into the valleys, following the Río Grande corridor, chilling tender early blossoms. The fragile first steps of spring soon leap to summer with its longer days. As the heat cranks up, landscapes metamorphize. They can be cultivated, manicured and planned. They can be of mixed inputs and can provide diverse outputs.
Landscapes can provide sustenance. Undisturbed parcels with varying conditions and microclimates can provide diverse blooms to feed diverse critters, from locusts to coyotes. The landscape is nurtured by the prevailing weather and climate and by what treads, breathes and flows upon it. The capacities of various landscapes cannot be fully understood until reviewed in relation to surroundings, circumstances and interactions—both wild and cultivated. Wild interactions can help promote cultivation and vice versa. When honeybees are present, their actions promote vitality and reproductivity. The plants sing to the bees, and the bees, in return, resonate back. This enhanced vibrational field energizes life’s processes.
Miel y Mas – Honey and More
Through pollination, bees help plants bear fruit, carrying seed that will allow a plant’s story to be passed on. In return, the bees are awarded a rich mix of protein and carbohydrates. Bees forage for nutrition to sweat their wax, produce royal jelly, concoct bee bread—a mixture of pollen and honey stored in a honeycomb cell—and transform nectar into honey. They also forage for their own medicine in the form of the foods they prepare. Propolis, which is resin from plants, shrubs and trees, is used to line the interior of a hive, seal cracks and contain decay and bacteria.
Nectar serves as the carbohydrate and pollen as the protein in a honeybee’s diet. There must be adequate amounts of each for nutritional health. If their forage is compromised, due to either monoculture or toxic residues from systemic insecticides and other environmental contaminants, this will contaminate their forage and food stores. Contamination would also spread to harvestable products such as wax, royal jelly, pollen, bee bread, honey and propolis.
Bees need a lot of energy to make their comb, the skeleton of their nest. This serves as the housing units where a brood is reared and food stored. Beeswax is actually the byproduct of bees sweating. They intake a lot of nectar and increase their body temperature in order for their wax glands to produce tiny “coins” of wax, which they pass from sister to sister and form into the hexagonal honeycomb that will contain their nest. It takes more than 20 pounds of nectar for bees to sweat out just one pound of beeswax. It is their biggest asset and takes the most energy to produce. Once they have their comb’s “spinal column” formed, foraging bees will begin to store “bee-kissed” nectar that has been collected from flowers, brought into the hive and passed from sister to sister, mixing with enzymes in their mouths and then deposited into a hexagonal cell for dehydration and storage. Nectar varies in consistency from plant to plant, but it is mainly water and sucrose that can be broken down into fructose and glucose. The bees must dehydrate it in order to preserve it, so that it doesn’t ferment and can be stored and consumed during the months when blooms are not available. Dehydrated, enzymed nectar turns into honey.
Some honeys are light, others amber or dark. It all depends on the floral source, which depends on the season, topography and climate. Some crystallize quickly, while a few never crystallize. Crystallization of honey is a natural phenomenon. The ratio of sugar to water determines if crystallization will occur. The higher the sugar content, the more likely the honey will crystallize. This is only for honey that has not been subjected to high heat or pasteurization.
This pure honey is considered raw because it retains traces of pollen, wax and sometimes propolis. Raw honey is more nutritious than pasteurized honey because the quantity of essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids is preserved, whereas high heat will take a lot of the good nutrients out. In New Mexico, raw honey crystallizes rather quickly because our arid, high-desert environment hosts plants that are able to preserve their water to prevent drying out. Plants here are quite intelligent. They know to not relinquish precious water stores when conditions are not conducive. For example, many plants will produce nectar and pollen at specific intervals of the day and will not give up their nectar during the hottest hours. Some will not produce any nectar unless it is above a certain temperature, such as alfalfa, which will only begin producing nectar at 70 degrees F.
Additionally, not all nectar is created equal. Some nectars have a higher sugar content than others. For instance, some varieties of pears begin blooming at the same time as apples. Bees prefer apple blossoms to pear blossoms because the apple blossoms offer sweeter nectar. Some plants will produce pollen and nectar that, with heavy, wet spring snow, high winds or monsoon rains, can be washed or blown away and, thus, will not be as attractive to bees. Circumstances change with the weather. If there is no moisture, there is little or no bloom, and plants know not to extend all their resources, so their nectar and pollen offerings may be of a different quality.
Medicinal plants also transmit some of their healing energies into their nectar, pollen and sap. It is with purpose that the bees collect these nectars, whether they do so knowingly or not. Once collected, gathered and transformed into honey, propolis and bee bread, these essential nectars, pollens and saps serve to nourish and to maintain health. Planting more medicinal landscapes feeds the land and the community.
The bees’ preservation of nectar into bee bread creates the sustenance for them to feed themselves, their young and their queen. In good years, surplus food stores can be harvested by a beekeeper. The worker bees have different jobs within the hive to cover all the necessary tasks for its maintenance. Soon after emergence from their cocoons, new bees begin their lives serving as nurse bees, feeding the young larvae before pupation. And the cycle continues.
La Jalea Royal – Royal Jelly
All babies, for the first three days of their larval stage, are fed royal jelly, a powerful nutrient-rich antioxidant and anti-aging concoction made by honeybees. Royal jelly looks like yogurt and tastes like it, too, with a spicy kick. After the third day, sister worker bees and their brothers—drones—will have their diet switched to bee bread, packed together in layers in honeycomb. Royal jelly is tedious to produce and harvest and is highly prized. Only the queen bee has a royal jelly diet all of her life. She can live several years, whereas workers live only a few weeks during the foraging season. Drones can live up to a few months.
Several Asian countries have substantial royal-jelly production. There are not many in the United States. One small-scale bee farm in northern New Mexico harvests royal jelly: my farm, Zia Queenbees Farm & Field Institute, which this year is celebrating a decade of service.
El Polen – Pollen
Because pollen serves as the protein for the bees’ diet, it is known to be an energy booster. Pollen is a sacred substance; it is alive and carries the stories of the past into the future by passing on the genetic legacy. Pollen is like seed; it helps create the fruit that will beget the seeds that are grown, saved, shared and passed from one generation to the next.
The difference between pollen and bee bread is that pollen, in its raw form, is a granule. All pollens have tough silicone exteriors to protect them as they travel through the air via the wind or pollinators. The nutrition contained in raw pollen is hard to access and is not digestible due to the exterior silicone casing. Thus, in order to access the nutrition within the pollen, one must pierce the tough casing by mixing pollen into something acidic such as yogurt, honey or juice. Bee bread has had its exterior pierced and is also preserved in the honey so as not to ferment or mold. Numerous live cultures and yeasts are found in pollen, which is why it is referred to as a live food.
And so it is. As the bees buzz, caressing our enchanted landscapes, they provide the resonance and synchronicity of the cycles of life and health and well-being. Their products in various forms and combinations help to heal the landscape and lifecycles and, also, can help heal humans, animals and plants. Healing with hive medicines is called apitherapy and includes the products of the hive and their combinations, as well as bee-sting and acoustic therapies.
The midwives of agriculture include bees, butterflies, birds, bats, wasps, flies and moths that help pollinate landscapes for continued biodiversity. The wide diversity will provide food for micro- to macroscopic life forms. In its entirety, it is all about reproduction of lifecycles and giving birth to beings that exist both in spirit and in whatever capacity their material form allows.
It is with great reverence that I’ve learned to approach our tierra encantada and the intricacies of our multicultural tapestry as we embrace and encourage the cycles of life. Hand in hand, or hand in wing, we can ride Mother Nature’s cloak and help steward health and well-being for the diverse forms of life to which we are so connected and with which we are blessed to interact.
May the buzz be with you – ¡Qué Viva Las Abejas!
Melanie Margarita Kirby is a native New Mexican from Tortugas Pueblo. She and her partner, Mark Spitzig, established Zia Queenbees in 2005 to provide New Mexico communities with pollination services, locally bred pollinators, hive products, hive medicines and research. She is the editor of kelleybees.com, a monthly online newsletter. Visit www.ziaqueenbees.com for more information.