Saving New Mexico’s pollinators
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, www.sdcbeeks.org, 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.”