Bees: Messengers of love

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"For bees, the flower is the fountain of life; For flowers, the bee is the messenger of love." - Kahlil Gibran, poet

The relationship that bees have with flowers is very much like the relationship between Zia Queenbees Farm of Truchas and Red Willow Farm, which is located at Taos Pueblo. Collaboration between the two is bringing forward a blossoming that represents new approaches, as well as a return to traditional sustainable practices.

Melanie Kirby of Zia Queenbees Farm and Field Institute has 150 hives in and around Taos. Two hives are located at Red Willow Farm. Kirby says that this partnership is an example of pollination and cross-pollination, as the queen bees she brought from her Truchas hives to Red Willow have mated with the drones (male bees) from the wild and managed hives at Taos Pueblo. The bees thrive on the wild bergamot and other plants that grow high up on Taos Mountain.

Opening the hive

On a recent warm afternoon, Kirby opened up the hives to check the health of the bees housed in boxes located near the greenhouses at Red Willow. She brought two queen bees - sisters - here last year, but only one has survived the winter.

Wearing a hat with a veil on it, Kirby lights a fire in her hand-held smoker. She starts the fire with bits of pine needles and wood chips. "The smoker allows me to calm the bees and gently tell them that I am here," Kirby says. As she approaches the stacked boxes, bees are flying in and out. She lets smoke go into the box on the top of the stack before opening it up using a special hive tool that looks like a paint scraper.

Moving slowly, she lifts up one of the wooden frames that hangs in the box. "I'm testing the temperament of the bees," she says. "They are pretty mellow." Kirby keeps an eye on the weather and explains that as barometric pressure drops and weather changes, bees can become agitated. Inside the hives, she checks on the bees' well-being and to see if they are making honey. The frames are covered with crawling bees. There is fresh nectar. Kirby encourages the observers to approach cautiously and we carefully dip our fingers in among the bees to try the honey, which is the freshest and sweetest imaginable.

"The bees are calm and happy now that spring is here and there is forage," says Kirby. She looks among the bees and finds the queen, which is bigger than the others. As Kirby inspects the frames, she looks for swarm queen cells. She explains that there can only be one queen at a time. When the cocoon for the new queen bee is ready, it is placed in a new hive with bees that will accept and nurture her.

Kirby does not wear gloves. She doesn't often get stung. Today, however, she gets an accidental sting on the finger and demonstrates how she wipes the stinger out. "A sting is a reminder of the intensity and wild nature of these creatures," she says. The whole experience of being present for the opening of the hives has the buzz of life: full of vibration and sweetness.

Learning about bees

Zia Queenbees Farm has been around for 13 years. "We are on the road to sustainability as a farm," Kirby says. She has been a beekeeper for 20 years. "The more I work with bees, the more fascinated I become," she observes.

In addition to offering queen bees for sale, the farm sells honey, balms, tinctures, candles and other products made by New Mexico bees.

Originally from Tortugas Pueblo, Kirby grew up in the southern portion of New Mexico and Santa Fe. After graduating from St. John's College in Santa Fe, she was a beekeeping extension volunteer for the Peace Corps in Paraguay. Then she went to Hawaii, where she worked on the Big Island learning about raising queen bees. After more learning at bee farms in Florida, Kirby founded Zia Queenbees Company. She focuses on raising queen bees at her farm nestled under Truchas Peaks. Her goal is to raise bees that are appropriate for their regional environment and that are strong, gentle and disease resistant.

In addition to beekeeping, she does research and writing and will be attending graduate school at Washington State University to study international bee breeding. She is the editor of "Kelly Beekeeping," an online monthly newsletter with 60,000 subscribers, and travels all over the world consulting and speaking on beekeeping. Her collaboration with partner Mark Spitzig of Superior Honey Farms, which is located on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan, allows her to work across the country. Together, they care for more than 200 hives.

Cooperative venture at Red Willow Farm

Kirby likes collaboration. She says, "As a first-generation landless farmer, I work with others who have land. I want the farmer to be successful and they want us to do well; it puts us on an even plane. They grow plants and the bees pollinate them. Then both can really blossom."

Kirby met Addie Lucero, Red Willow executive director, during a Traditional Agriculture and Sustainable Living conference gathering of the eight northern pueblos at Tesuque Pueblo. "We started thinking about how farming and pollination go hand in hand. Bees are like native seeds and help us return to traditional foods and practices," Lucero says.

Cooperation with Red Willow Farm at Taos Pueblo supports its mission to "revitalize the agricultural heritage of Taos Pueblo and to re-establish food sovereignty, regaining control of and rebuilding its food system and sustainability infrastructure." The farm began operations in June 2003. There have been as many as 11 programs running at the farm.

Lucero explains, "Now we are refining the programs and focusing on a few that we can do well." The nonprofit farm integrates traditional growing practices with modern technology. Lucero says, "We are teaching future leaders the importance of sustainable farming and also the business of running a farmers market."

Next week, the Red Willow Farmers Market moves outside. It is open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and features fresh produce, baked goods, skin care products and chair massages by Brenda Archuleta. The emphasis is on youth education and collaboration with the eight northern pueblos. "We can all learn and help lead our communities back to sustainability. Honey is a traditional food for us," Lucero says. "It is a natural sweetener and has more benefits for the body as opposed to processed sugar, which is not used as easily by the body. This is especially important due to the number of Native people who have diabetes."

Importance of bees

It is estimated that bees pollinate 400 different types of plants and are responsible for a third of the food we eat in the U.S. In their search for pollen to nourish themselves, bees carry pollen to other flowers and plants, which fertilizes them and allows them to flourish and produce fruit, Kirby explains.

Recently, there has been a decline in the bee population due to reduced diversity of food sources and exposure to pesticides, among other factors. Kirby says that people can contribute to bee health by providing nutritious plants and not using pesticides or other toxic products. "The whole field is really blossoming and growing. We are all part of the web of life; the circle of life. We are what we grow and what we eat," she points out.

Kirby likes to see young farmers and beekeepers learning about sustainability. One of her beeyards is located at the Taos Museum of Art at the Fechin House. It is a part of the edible Fechin Food Forest, which will be the setting for garden events for children.

Another beeyard is located at Not Forgotten Outreach, which provides programs for veterans. The healing that comes from raising bees and using their products are especially important here. Kirby says, "Bees are very therapeutic. They help connect us to body, mind and spirit. Working with bees can assist with trauma for vets who are suffering."

Kirby adds that bees remind us of the rhythms of spring and summer with their foraging, growing and thriving. "It is all part of the ebb and flow, the rhythm of nature. Mother Earth heals us in every season," she says.

Events and more information

On bees

From Bloom to Boom is a free event scheduled for Friday (June 16) from 9 a.m. to noon in Embudo at the New Mexico State University-Alcalde Sustainable Agricultural Center. The day will be focused on sharing information about oregano de la sierra, a native New Mexico medicinal herb. The day marks the kickoff for National Pollinator Week and includes talks on pollinator identification, herbal medicines for pollinators and research on maintaining pollinator health. Speakers include Melanie Kirby of Zia Queenbees Farm and Field Institute. To register, call Anna Trujillo at NMSU-Alcalde at (505) 852-4241. To find out more, visit herbs4bees.com.

For more information on Zia Queenbees Farm, visit ziaqueenbees.com. For more beekeeping information, see nmbeekeepers.org. For information on bees' role in the ecosystem, check onegreenplanet.org.

Red Willow Farm

Red Willow Farmers Market is open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 885 Star Road, just off Veteran's Highway, Taos Pueblo. The Farm-to-School club happens in June for kids. The Summer Sustainability Institute, a University of New Mexico/Taos High School dual-credit class taught by Miguel Santistevan, is offered for six weeks from mid-June through the end of July. It focuses on hands-on learning about farming and farmers markets. Farm tours are also available. For more information, visit redwillowfarm.org or contact Red Willow at (575) 770-1362 and redwillowfarm15@gmail.com.

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