Melanie Margarita Kirby
For almost a decade now, there has been an explosion of beekeepers across the nation. In 2006, as news of colony collapse disorder spread, folks became concerned, and many were inspired to learn honeybee husbandry. While the world does indeed need more beekeepers, what it especially needs is more healthy stock to steward. However, this is a very nuanced endeavor.
As weather continues to fluctuate and environments are contaminated, pollinator production around the world is being compromised. Many novices fail to research properly before beginning. First and foremost is the need to establish and sustain habitat to better preserve and promote local populations. Instead, many procure bees before learning whether their specific location is already saturated with honeybees. Oversaturation leads to increased competition for forage resources among neighboring hives and other native pollinators.
There are not many producers of local honeybees and native pollinators in New Mexico, thus the boom of mass importation. The sad but true scenario is that many of the regions that supply the stock across the nation are compromised, whether from oversaturation and spread of diseases or viral transmissions and aggressive genetics. Zones where conditions are unhealthy have often been sprayed with tons of fungicides, pesticides, herbicides and other systemic toxins, leaving residues on blossoms where pollinators forage.
This contamination is then laden in the nectar and pollens and stored by the hive to feed their young. Slowly but surely they are being poisoned to death. These poisons infiltrate individual bees and their superorganism as a whole, stressing the hives and creating more health issues as reproductive and cognitive functions of the bees become impaired. Thus, any imported stock poses high risks to local strains and their stewards. So, although folks wanted to help save bees, they are inadvertently speeding their demise.
Research from the 1990s showed that New Mexico had 11 different subspecies of honeybees, much more than any other state. New Mexico hosts 1,100 of the 1,400 native bee species found throughout North America. This is indicative of a rich, diverse landscape. New Mexico has seven of the eight climactic zones, only missing tropical. The variety of microclimates and topographies lends itself to breeding hardy local strains. Yet, the majority of production is coming from states with very few subspecies, thus exacerbating genetic bottlenecking and inciting inbreeding. When compromised stock is imported, our local strains are at severe risk of being impaired and forever lost.
So, what can people and communities do to really help save local pollinators? They can start by promoting diversified habitat. Increasing drought is making it harder to grow food. The scarcity of water resources can spread contamination more readily with devastating results. Drought is adversely affecting wildflowers and minimizing forage. Flora, fauna and humans are part of the Anthropocene era; we all congregate at the same watering holes. Establishing forage corridors for pollinators is a key step to promoting sustainable resources for all wild and cultivated life forms that in turn help feed us.
The few local producers established in the Land of Enchantment are struggling to stay proactive by integrating broader educational opportunities to better inform our communities and encourage local support. The Rocky Mountain Survivor Queenbee Cooperative is one such regional service organization. The RMSQB Cooperative began in 2011 as an out-of-pocket pilot project between beekeepers in Santa Fe, Río Arríba, Taos and Mora counties. By 2012, the cooperative had about a dozen beekeepers between Santa Fe and Fort Collins, Colo. That year, the cooperative received an initial Farmer/Producer grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research Education and, in 2013, was awarded an Agriculture Advance and Product Promotion grant from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA). RMSQB was also recognized by Sustainable Santa Fe with an award for its climate-adaptation work.
RMSQB is a grassroots effort to promote capacity-building through professional development opportunities, rural development, entrepreneurship, honeybee stock-improvement programs, native and alternative pollinator promotion and production, and apitherapy (medicinal use of bee products). Last year, through partial funding by the NMDA, the cooperative was able to present its chemical-free, honeybee-breeding stock program in the Ukraine at the World Beekeeping Conference to more than 10,000 attending beekeepers from around the globe. Additionally, last autumn, RMSQB played host to visiting beekeepers and researchers from as far away as France and British Columbia during the Western Apicultural Society of North America Conference in Santa Fe.
This spring, the cooperative is bringing top-notch pollinator researchers to New Mexico by launching the 2014 North to South New Mexico Pollinator Benefit Lecture Series. Also upcoming is the Northern New Mexico Rocky Mountain Sweet Spring Sting Symposium on Pollinator and Human Health (see sidebar). The first lecturer, Dr. Thomas Seeley, world renowned Conservation Biologist from Cornell University and author of Honeybee Democracy, will discuss the phenomenon of swarm intelligence (SI), the solving of cognitive problems by a group of individuals who pool their knowledge and process it through social interactions. SI has relevance to other animals, including humans. To better understand collective decision-making, we can examine natural systems that have evolved sophisticated mechanisms for achieving SI (www.cornell.edu/video/tom-seeley-honeybee-democracy). Dr. Seeley’s main research is determining how honeybee colonies in the wild are able to survive without being treated with pesticides for controlling a deadly ectoparasitic mite, the infamous varroa destructor.
The broader lecture series features Dr. Juliana Posada-Rangel, associate professor at Texas A&M, who is president of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists and the American Bee Research Conference, and Dr. Wyatt Mangum, professor of mathematics and a regular columnist for The American Bee Journal, who will present his new book, Top Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined, and screen some of the films he has produced of his research.
The lecture series and the field practicums are open to the public. An attendance fee—$15 per lecture and $40 per field practicum—is requested to help cover speaker honorariums and support future programming. RMSQB hopes to continue this lecture series annually. RMSQB members are eligible for professional development trainings, regionally and internationally. To support the cooperative’s pollinator research and programming, a tax-deductible donation can be sent to RMSQB Cooperative, P.O. Box 317, Truchas, NM 87578.
Melanie Kirby, a native New Mexican, has been keeping bees professionally for 17 years. She is the editor of Kelley Beekeeping, a free online newsletter. Kirby and her partner, Mark Spitzig, established Zia Queenbees to serve New Mexico communities’ pollination and honey needs. firstname.lastname@example.org