Hive mind

Sav­ing New Mex­ico’s pol­li­na­tors

Pasatiempo - - ADVERTISEMENT - Molly Boyle

April may be the kind­est month for the bees of North­ern New Mex­ico. Stand­ing un­der­neath a flow­er­ing ap­ple tree on a sunny, dry spring day, it’s pos­si­ble to hear the im­pres­sive col­lec­tive drone of dozens of busy pol­li­na­tors as they move rapidly from blos­som to blos­som, feast­ing on nec­tar and trans­fer­ring re­pro­duc­tive pollen. For a decade now, news re­ports of wide­spread honeybee- colony col­lapse dis­or­der have rung alarm bells among en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and ecol­o­gists. But if you stop un­der a tree and gaze up into the buzzing net­work of branches and blooms, you may walk away heart­ened, telling your­self that the bees are all right.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers and con­ser­va­tion­ists, th­ese pol­li­na­tors could use a lot of hu­man help. Sev­eral years ago, Mora bee­keeper Meg McGee started hear­ing about colony col­lapse around the time she re­al­ized she needed as­sis­tance pol­li­nat­ing her back­yard or­chard. “The num­ber-one ser­vice bees pro­vide to hu­mans is that pol­li­na­tion, be­cause for ev­ery third bite of food that we put in our mouths, we can thank a pol­li­na­tor — and es­pe­cially honey­bees. In­di­rectly, they pol­li­nate many seed crops and for­age crops that our live­stock are fed. And more and more, sci­ence is go­ing into the virtues of honey and its medic­i­nal prop­er­ties,” McGee told Pasatiempo. She took an in­ten­sive course with in­struc­tor Les Crow­der, for­mer pres­i­dent of the New Mex­ico Bee­keep­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and co- author of Top-Bar Bee­keep­ing: Or­ganic Prac­tices for Honeybee Health (Chelsea Green, 2012), and be­gan with two bee­hives. To­day she has 23 top-bar-style hives sprawled out against her ex­pan­sive, grassy back­yard near the Mora Val­ley Spin­ning Mill. For the past two years, she’s har­vested and sold more than 500 pounds of honey, which is nearly all claimed by friends and neigh­bors be­fore har­vest time, and her yard is a pol­li­na­tor’s par­adise.

McGee is just be­gin­ning her bee sea­son this year. In Fe­bru­ary, she watches for elm pollen, which is the first pollen source af­ter the bees’ win­ter hi­ber­na­tion. “The bees have what are called pollen bas­kets, so they have a beau­ti­ful pel­let of pollen that’s very vis­i­ble at­tached to their very back legs. So you see those won­der­ful pollen pel­lets go­ing into the hive and know that pretty soon things are go­ing to start hap­pen­ing — the queen lay­ing eggs, ba­bies be­ing raised. Elm pollen is very dis­tinc­tive — kind of a fluffy white color. You don’t see much pollen that color any other time,” she told Pasatiempo. May and June be­gins a pe­riod of rapid pop­u­la­tion growth. “The hive grows from maybe 5,000 bees in the win­ter clus­ter to around 30,000 bees at the height of the pop­u­la­tion in mid­sum­mer. A good, young, vig­or­ous queen can ac­tu­ally lay 2,000 eggs a day.” The eggs pro­duce the queen’s work­ers, who are ready to meet the big­ger nec­tar and pollen booms dur­ing mon­soon sea­son. McGee said the bees put away pollen in the brood nest, mak­ing what is called “bee bread,” pollen stored in combs that bees in­noc­u­late with enyzmes and yeasts. “It’s re­ally a su­per­food,” she said, “and this is what they use to feed the ba­bies.”

Honey-col­lect­ing times co­in­cide with the mon­soon sea­son, when nec­tar is at its most plen­ti­ful. “When honey in the combs is ripened, the bees will de­hu­mid­ify it to evap­o­rate off enough wa­ter so that it won’t fer­ment. As soon as it reaches that point of ripeness, they’ll cover it with a beeswax seal and then I know that I can take those combs for har­vest.”

Christa Cog­gins, who lives near St. John’s Col­lege, keeps two top-bar bee­hives on her roof af­ter a few in­ci­dents of bear de­struc­tion when the hives were at ground-level. She de­scribed the honey-har­vest­ing process: “When you har­vest honey from a top bar, you lift the bar, knock the bees off, and slice the comb off into a bucket, crush it with your hands, and let the honey drain out. The whole process takes about two days.” She mail-or­dered her hives af­ter tak­ing a bee­keep­ing class at the now- de­funct Ecov­er­sity in Santa Fe, re­count­ing the sys­tem of in­tro­duc­ing a (newly ar­rived by U. S. mail) queen bee to the rest of the hive by let­ting the bees get used to the neigh­bor­ing queen’s pheromones be­fore ac­tu­ally phys­i­cally min­gling them. She said the top-bar hive, in which each comb hangs from re­mov­able bars, was de­vel­oped and pop­u­lar­ized by the Peace Corps in Kenya, “the idea be­ing that it was some­thing that you could make your­self with scrap lum­ber. Nowa­days we all use the same plans so we can share from one hive to the other.”

The idea of shar­ing — a hive mind, if you will — is en­demic to the lo­cal api­arist com­mu­nity. Kate Whealen teaches a master bee­keep­ing course in Albuquerque and has con­sulted with bee­keep­ers in Clo­vis, Sil­ver City, and Farmington. Whealen, who also took a be­gin­ning class with Crow­der, founded the San­gre de Cristo Bee­keep­ers af­ter start­ing her own hives and re­al­iz­ing that she wanted to be in touch with other “beeks,” as they call them­selves, to share knowl­edge and trou­bleshoot about lo­cal con­di­tions. “It was sort of a sup­port group for peo­ple to talk about their bees. It’s both for ex­pe­ri­enced bee­keep­ers who might be en­coun­ter­ing new is­sues or just want to see what every­body else’s bees are do­ing, or for new beeks so that they can know what to ex­pect in our area,” she told Pasatiempo. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s web­site,­, is the most ac­tive com­po­nent, with a fo­rum that con­tains a decade’s worth of ques­tions and an­swers about lo­cal bee­keep­ing. Mem­bers also meet once a month dur­ing bee sea­son. Whealen said that part of a bee­keeper’s job is ed­u­cat­ing neigh­bors. “There’s a fear fac­tor — if a swarm ap­pears in some­body’s yard, it may or may not be from the bee­keep­ing neigh­bor. But the swarms are very docile. They aren’t de­fend­ing their home, so they’re not a threat, but they are vis­ually im­pres­sive to peo­ple. We al­ways en­cour­age peo­ple to talk with their neigh­bors and be reach­able, so that if some­thing like that hap­pens, they can re­move it. We’re so dry here in this cli­mate that they do like to go to wa­ter fea­tures, so we en­cour­age the bee­keeper to keep a good wa­ter source on their prop­erty close enough to the hives that they don’t want to go next door to the neigh­bor’s horse trough or bird­bath.”

The Ace­quia Madre, an ex­cel­lent wa­ter source for bees, runs through the Rai­l­yard Park down­town. With that hy­dra­tion — along with 13 acres of wild­flower mead­ows, na­tive plants, and an or­chard — the Rai­l­yard Stew­ards, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for pub­lic pro­gram­ming and art in the Rai­l­yard park and plaza ar­eas, has de­cided the park is a per­fect place to in­stall a na­tive bee house. The aim of the Stew­ards’ Na­tive Bee House Project is to en­cour­age and house na­tive bees, the un­sung heroes of pol­li­na­tion, who work harder and cover more ground than honey­bees.

Dr. Olivia Messinger Car­ril, co-author of The Bees in Your Back­yard: A Guide to North Amer­ica’s Bees (Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 2015) and a con­sul­tant with the Rai­l­yard Stew­ards on the bee-house project, of­fered in­sight into the na­tive bee sit­u­a­tion in New Mex­ico. Un­like the smaller pop­u­la­tion of non-na­tive honey­bees, which were in­tro­duced to North Amer­ica by Euro­pean set­tlers, na­tive bees have pop­u­lated the South­west for eons, drawn by the desert cli­mate and

The bees have what are called pollen bas­kets, so they have a beau­ti­ful pel­let of pollen that’s very vis­i­ble at­tached to their very back legs. So you see those won­der­ful pollen pel­lets go­ing into the hive and know that pretty soon things are go­ing to start hap­pen­ing — the queen lay­ing eggs, ba­bies be­ing raised. — bee­keeper Meg McGee

am­ple, mon­soon-pro­duced an­nual f low­ers. More than 4,000 species of na­tive bees ex­ist in the United States, and more than a quar­ter of that pop­u­la­tion can be found in New Mex­ico. Honey­bees have a so­cial liv­ing sit­u­a­tion in the hive sys­tem, with a queen that pre­sides over worker bees and drones that carry out a com­plex divi­sion of la­bor (as Car­ril noted, “un­der­taker” honey­bees are even tasked with haul­ing out ca­dav­ers from the hive). But na­tive bees are dif­fer­ent an­i­mals. Car­ril said, “For most bees in this country, the fe­male does all the work, so she’s soli­tary — mean­ing that she goes out and gath­ers pollen and nec­tar that she takes back to a nest that she’s built in or­der to pro­vide for all of the eggs that she lays. So she does every­thing.”

Ac­cord­ing to Car­ril, most na­tive species — which are less prone to colony col­lapse than honey­bees — are ground-nesters, bur­row­ing holes in the ground like go­phers to es­tab­lish res­i­dency. But 30 per­cent of na­tive bees are cav­ity-nesters that find al­readyex­ist­ing bur­rows, like snail shells or dis­carded pen­ste­mon plants with hol­low, pithy stalks, to nest in — and with in­creas­ing ur­ban­iza­tion, many of th­ese habi­tats face de­struc­tion. It’s th­ese cav­ity-nest­ing bees for which Car­ril and Rai­l­yard Stew­ards ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Linda Shafer are hop­ing to pro­vide a new home in the form of the Na­tive Bee House Project. The house will be in­stalled at the north­ern end of the park in the ar­royo area, east of the park’s park­ing lot and north­west of the chil­dren’s play area, just in time for Earth Day on Fri­day, April 22.

On a rainy af­ter­noon in early April, Shafer, Car­ril, and de­signer Peter Joseph in­spected the newly con­structed bee house at Joseph’s stu­dio off Siler Road. Though there is al­ready a smaller na­tive bee house at the Ran­dall Davey Audubon Cen­ter, in­stalled in the pol­li­na­tor gar­den in 2014 by Whealen and other bee en­thu­si­asts, Shafer said that a project on this scale seems to be the first of its kind in New Mex­ico. Af­ter the Rai­l­yard Stew­ards se­cured a key grant from PNM, Joseph signed onto the project, re­search­ing and build­ing the 6-foot by 5-foot, 2-foot- deep “con­do­minium” for bees. Joseph said, “The de­sign came out of the ba­sic pa­ram­e­ters of how much space we wanted to fill. Con­sid­er­a­tions in­cluded what’s go­ing on at the Rai­l­yard, both aes­thet­i­cally and cre­atively, and what kind of ma­te­ri­als are al­ready there.” The park is gov­erned by the Santa Fe Con­ser­va­tion Trust, which dic­tates that there can be no per­ma­nent art or ad­di­tional per­ma­nent struc­tures on the land, so Joseph had to think cre­atively. “That fun­neled into the idea of us­ing a gabion [a cage filled with rocks some­times used in civil engi­neer­ing], be­cause we couldn’t pour a slab. The gabion be­came its own de­sign el­e­ment be­cause it re­lates to what’s al­ready there in the Rai­l­yard [the xeric or­na­men­tal Gabion Gar­dens], and it be­comes a nice foun­da­tion, where no one can walk off with the house.” Car­ril noted that bees also some­times nest in rocks, which is an added bonus fac­tor of the de­sign.

Ad­di­tional con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als were do­nated by Re­liance Steel & Alu­minum Co. and The Western Group, both of Albuquerque. An­other bene­fac­tor gave Joseph a deck made of dense, sturdy, South Amer­i­can

ipe wood, which Joseph re­pur­posed to build the cen­tral “bee recre­ation com­plex,” as he dubbed it. In th­ese cub­by­holes, vol­un­teers and school groups will in­sert both tried-and-true and hy­po­thet­i­cally use­ful nest­ing ma­te­ri­als ac­cord­ing to Car­ril’s re­search, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of parch­ment pa­per “bee straws” that stu­dents at the Santa Fe Girls School and Sweeney El­e­men­tary School helped roll. “Those are the real worker bees,” Joseph said dryly. Com­mu­nity mem­bers will have a chance to con­struct more nest­ing ma­te­ri­als for the house’s com­part­ments on Satur­day, April 23, at the Rai­l­yard Com­mu­nity Room, where Car­ril will give an in­tro­duc­tory talk on na­tive bees and what com­mu­nity mem­bers can do to help cre­ate bee habi­tats.

Shafer said, “We wanted to make this art­ful and func­tional — so that when you’re look­ing at it, if you didn’t know it was a na­tive bee house, it will still be pleas­ing to the eye and in­for­ma­tive, so that peo­ple will stop and say ‘Oh, what’s this?’ ” A large interpretive sign de­tails the aim of the bee house, along with in­for­ma­tion about and pic­tures of some of the bee species that al­ready pop­u­late the park. The Rai­l­yard Stew­ards plan to use the house as an ed­u­ca­tional tool for out­door sci­ence class­rooms that come to the park in the fall once a week for 10 weeks.

The Stew­ards will also hold a na­tive bee walk and house tour on May 14, as well as host­ing ac­tiv­i­ties for this year’s Na­tional Pol­li­na­tor Week, from June 20 to June 26, for which Mayor Javier Gon­za­les will is­sue a procla­ma­tion to cel­e­brate in Santa Fe. Joseph, who keeps a few hives of honey­bees in his own back­yard, said, “Right now is a mag­nif­i­cent time of year for bees. You can stand at a fruit tree that’s blos­som­ing, take a breath, and say, ‘I’m go­ing to spend 45 sec­onds here,’ and you’ll see honey­bees and a bunch of na­tive pol­li­na­tors — os­mias, an­drena. I was on the way to a hike the other day and of course, when you pass one of those trees, you have to just take a minute and see all the bees. It’s not like they just fly up to you and say, ‘Here I am.’ They’re busy.”

Shafer said, “In the course of walk­ing around the park with Olivia, we prob­a­bly saw about 25 dif­fer­ent species of bees,” in­clud­ing the perdita, which is the small­est bee in North Amer­ica. Car­ril said, “It’s the size of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s nose on a quar­ter, or even smaller than the width of a quar­ter. There are 600 species of just perdita, found mostly in the South­west and not any­where else.”

“So hope­fully,” Shafer added, “if we build it, they will come.”

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