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Annals of Agriculture

Bee Wise

New Mexico beekeepers harvest honey while providing pollinators
for much of the other food we eat.

by Karen Ray

 

 

"In the bee-ginning…" there were bees. Bees are one of the most important links in our finely tuned ecosystem and are one of the pollinators "essential for human life," according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "Approximately one in three mouthfuls of food and beverage required the presence of a pollinator.… Bees are the primary pollinator for most wildflowers and crops in the United States and Canada." According to the society, "Worldwide, there are an estimated 20,000 species of bees, with approximately 4,000 species native to North America."

bees
Anita Feil with her “Topbar” hive. (Photo: Karen Ray)

From Van Morrison's iconic ode to his sweetheart in "Tupelo Honey" to Blake Shelton's country-sweet "Honey Bee," honey has epitomized many of our human expressions of love and affection. Our love affair with honey is as old as the planet. Honey has been used as currency and the bee appeared on Greek coinage around the sixth century BC.

Bee keeping is one of the original cottage industries, amenable to backyard hobby producers as well as large-scale commercial production. The cultivation of honey has been honed to a fine art with nuances of flavor exquisitely tuned to geographic location, climate and season. Connoisseurs throughout history have deftly employed different types of honey to create just the right epicurean delight.

The health benefits of honey consumption have long been touted as people have sought more youthful skin, fewer allergies, and the natural antibiotic qualities of honey. Legend has it that ancient rulers were sometimes embalmed in honey.

In researching this article, I remembered a long-ago school lesson regarding Cleopatra and honey, and followed the bee trail to an unusual website. There, on the home page of "The Art of Being Feminine," in between pages of articles on how to be "lovely, charming and charismatic," was recipe after recipe for the Queen of the Nile's beauty products, many involving honey, beeswax, yogurt and milk. Quite the entertaining read while I applied my beeswax lip balm.

Great skill and expertise have developed over the centuries of beekeeping. Bees have been cultivated not only as important pollinators, but also as a source of honey for sweetening and the raw ingredient for mead, a fermented alcoholic drink enjoyed worldwide.

Author and bee specialist Tammy Horn, in her book Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us about Local Trade and the Global Market, discusses the impact of the chilling climate change of the 14th through 19th centuries on the industry of beekeeping: "The vagaries of the Little Ice Age meant more winds and more storms, so shelters called ‘bee boles' were constructed in rock walls to protect skeps (beehives)…. Most bee boles were located near houses, suggesting that farmers' wives tended the bees." It also appears as if there was quite a bit of royal support for the apiary industry: "Queen Elizabeth created a legal structure for beekeepers, Queen Anne promoted an economic infrastructure for domestic beekeeping."

The National Honey Board reports that the average per capita consumption of honey in the US is about 1.3 pounds per year. The board lists over 170 varieties of honey, from Acacia and Alfalfa to Tupelo and Willow. The Tupelo varietal, a favorite in popular culture, is produced from the nectar of the flowering tupelo tree, found primarily along just a few rivers in Georgia and Florida. Interestingly, Slow Food USA reports, "Because of its unusually high fructose content (versus sucrose), Tupelo honey will not granulate… and some diabetics may eat it."

 

In our arid southwestern climate, typical honey varieties are alfalfa and mesquite, with more robust flavors and richer color than Tupelo. Although varietal honey from chile to delicate lavender can be found around the Mesilla Valley, Gordon Steel, past president of the New Mexico Beekeepers Association, points out that it is almost impossible to say honey is a specific variety due to the fact that bees can range up to five miles in their foraging for nectar sources.

bees
Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, co-director of La Semilla Food Center, and Loretta McGrath, director of the Pollinator Partners Program, conduct a workshop. (Photo: Ray Bernstein)

Steel owns and operates Rio Grande Winery, located south of Mesilla on Hwy. 28, where he sells his own locally produced wine as well as locally grown honey. He has kept as many as 125 hives at a time and has a wealth of beekeeping expertise. Currently, he estimates there are 15 commercial beekeepers in New Mexico, the largest maintaining approximately 4,000 hives each and about 100 producers keeping fewer than 10 hives. He says a bee colony will produce four to five gallons of honey per year.

When asked about the "colony-collapse disorder" affecting honeybee populations, Steel replies, "There are lots of causes. Biggest one is the drought. In a drought season there's a definite problem for the bees to collect enough nectar. Honey production is really low; last year was the worst in quite some time." He says that mites are also a contributing factor.

The American Bee Journal reports, "Research in the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious malady afflicting (primarily commercial) honeybees, suggests that pests, pathogens and pesticides all play a role." The EPA reports that researchers are concentrating on mites, pesticide poisoning (especially from the neonicotinoid class of chemicals), bee-management stress from moving colonies to pollinate crops, drought and habitat modification leading to inadequate forage or poor nutrition.

Research conducted by May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois "indicates that the honeybee diet influences the bees' ability to withstand at least some of these assaults. Some components of the nectar and pollen grains bees collect to manufacture food to support the hive increase the expression of detoxification genes that help keep honeybees healthy."

 

 


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