Did the Spanish bring bees to New Mexico?

Vadito beekeeper explores cultural, scientific connections

By Cindy Brown
For Taos News
Posted 1/2/20

Local queen bee expert Melanie Kirby is pursuing her questions about the possible connections between New Mexico and Spanish bees by traveling to Spain. Her goal is to learn more about the science and cultural-traditional aspects of bees in order to benefit local beekeepers.

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Did the Spanish bring bees to New Mexico?

Vadito beekeeper explores cultural, scientific connections

Posted

Local queen bee expert Melanie Kirby is pursuing her questions about the possible connections between New Mexico and Spanish bees by traveling to Spain. Her goal is to learn more about the science and cultural-traditional aspects of bees in order to benefit local beekeepers.

Kirby was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for her project called "Till Queendom Come: How the Bees as Seeds Experience Unfurls Perfumed Stories from the Hive Mind to Collective Human Consciousness."

In mid-November, Kirby left for Córdoba, Spain. Her bee farm near Vadito will be tended by her farm partner Mark Spitzig. Her kids go to Taos International School and have joined her in Spain to be a part of the journey and to put the school's mission of nurturing global citizenship into action. "It's amazing how interconnected it all is and demonstrates that it takes a community to raise healthy habitat, bees and future generations. Taos is special indeed," says Kirby.

One of her goals is to help mend the disconnect between scientific research and the farmers doing the work of raising bees. "I have spent the past two years splitting my time between Taos and Washington State University working on a graduate degree in entomology in order to support New Mexico pollinators and their stewards.

"One of main reasons to go back to school is to help quantify and amplify beekeeper farmers' voices," explains Kirby. "Among my future goals is establishing a Rocky Mountain pollinator conservation organization based here in Taos for education, consilience (multidisciplinary) research and apicultural therapies and collaborative arts."

Legacy of the Spanish

For nine months, Kirby will be conducting research in Spain as a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling fellow. Based at the Center for Andalusian Apiculture at the Córdoba-Rabanales campus for environment and agriculture, she will be investigating Spanish beekeeping and its relationship to New Mexico. Kirby wonders whether the initial Spanish explorers and settlers brought bees with them to New Mexico, as they did with their grapes and other cultural and traditional practices.

Her question about this connection arose when she researched bees living near Ghost Ranch in the caves at the Monastery for Christ in the Desert. Working with other researchers, she took samples of 65 feral/wild bees that seemed healthy. The bees may be a legacy of an active bee-keeping program that was once run at the monastery. The samples were tested for the mitochondria matter found in cells to trace the genetics of the bees through the maternal line.

The results showed that the bees had non-Africanized Old World roots from Europe or Asia, which led Kirby to wonder if the Spanish had brought bees with them hundreds of years ago and, if so, what kind. She hopes to find archives that might give some clues to this possible legacy of the Spanish many years ago.

"Geographically, Spain is a very unique location to study honeybee ecotypes because Spain is right above Africa and connected to Middle East and Western Europe," says Kirby. "There is a long-standing tradition of valuing bee keeping (also known as apiculture). The oldest known cave painting of honey hunters is located in Valencia, Spain."

Some communities in Spain still use clay hives and honey vessels, which led Kirby to a second facet of her research that focuses on the use of clay vessels for storing honey and looks at how similar hive adobes might be used in New Mexico. As part of her research, she will interview Spanish beekeepers to find out how they are adapting to environmental stresses.

The final aspect of her research will be scientific: focusing on utilizing electromagnetic devices to measure when various honeybee ecotypes mate and if climate change is affecting their timing. In order to evaluate this question, Kirby will use plant resin to attach a sticker to the back of selected bees. When the bees pass through a tube entering the hive, data about mating behavior is transmitted.

Music of bees

All of her research will be shared with local beekeepers and the public through podcasts on National Geographic Explorer; a link will be available soon. Through her work, she hopes to make her family and community proud and honor her roots. Her family is part of the Tortugas Pueblo in the Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces. Kirby says, "Being born and raised in New Mexico within a mestizo family in areas that thrive in the arts and the connection to the land - via farming and wildcrafting - has permeated my being."

In her life, Kirby has been a potter and a DJ. She sees music as a universal language and the sound of bees as part of that language. "It is exactly that idea that continues to entice me - the mystery is the allure, the sound of the hive, the sound of the wind in the trees and the smell of flowers' perfumes and nectars and the synthesis between the senses and cycles of life," she says.

Following the project

Photos from Kirby's research can be found on Instagram @ziaqueenbees and periodic updates will appear in the Taos News.

A sensory exhibit showcasing the project with visual, sound, taste, smell and touch will debut at the Peñasco Theatre in the autumn of 2020.

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