Monday, June 29, 2015

Hive Mind: Raising Bees in the Southwest

Ben displays a frame from the hive
Last week I blogged about Bee Chama Honey in Polvadera New Mexico. I also got to visit with beekeepers last year while working on an article for enchantment magazine, published by NMRECA.

Beekeeper Ben Noyce from North Valley Bees in Albuquerque and Jessica Makin, a beekeeper in training, met me one Saturday. We suit up in protective gear to check a hive. I’m not afraid of bees, but as we approach the box, dozens of bees are flying around with a steady thrum. My heart races. A bee bumps against the mesh shielding my face, buzzing loudly.

Ben explains, “Honeybees are notoriously gentle. They will check you out and bump you, which is a way of saying, ‘You’re in my way, back off.’ The best thing is to be calm.”

Jessica shows off some honeycomb
Soon I’m caught up in the fascinating process. The soft, steady hum of hundreds of bees is actually less threatening than when one or two buzz loudly, bumping against my face shield.

Ben pulls the frames out one at a time to check the hive health. Most hold an irregularly-shaped honeycomb swarming with bees. Some of the honeycomb cells are filled with bee larva. One bee is being born, its antenna wiggling out a tiny hole in the cell. Ben points out another bee doing the “wiggle dance,” which looks like a miniature cha-cha. The bee is giving directions for finding pollen.

This hive started with 5 pound of bees. Since there are 3000 to 4000 bees in a single pound, that’s at least 15,000 bees, and growing. Ben will keep adding boxes to give them more room, and the hive will expand to double the number of bees.

Jessica had been exploring beekeeping for about three weeks. She no longer feels as much of an adrenaline jolt from being so close – usually. She kneels and reaches into the open hive to clear out some trash, bees flying and crawling around her. “Here’s where the adrenaline hits,” she says.

Property owner Gino Perez watche Ben and Jess
As we pack up, they offer me a piece of honeycomb saturated in honey. The texture is like chewing on wax; the flavor is subtle and sweet and delicious. Beekeepers can judge the source of honey from the taste and the color of the pollen. Some wisteria honey “was so light it almost looked like water, but it had an earthy, strong perfume flavor, like rosewater,” Ben says. In another hive, the main source of pollen was mariposa. “This honey was so dark and thick it moved like molasses. It had an aftertaste of smoky mesquite.”

Beekeeping seems to be addictive – and contagious. Ben says, “We’ll get calls to remove bees, and they’ll say, ‘Teach me a little about it.’ Next thing you know, we have them in a suit, and they taste raw honey.” Most grocery store honey is heated and filtered. Raw honey may have more flavor, and some people claim it’s healthier.

Keeping Things Growing

Bee colonies reduce their population in the winter, perhaps dropping to 10 or 20,000 workers plus the queen. They live off their own honey. When the weather warms up, the colony expands. An active summer colony may have 50,000 worker bees foraging for food, guarding the colony, or tending to the brood. When the colony gets large enough, the queen and some workers may separate to start a new colony. This is called a swarm and may look like a ball of bees in the air or on a tree branch.

Smoke calms the bees
Don’t panic if you see a swarm near your house. They may simply be scouting for a new location and may move on within a day or two. However, swarms can also choose to settle in places inconvenient to humans, such as house walls and attics. If they move in, call a beekeeper. They’ll try to remove the swarm with minimal damage to the bees, and set them up in a new hive.

“This year has been really weird,” Ben says. “Before, you didn’t see a bee unless you had a hive in the area. Now they’re everywhere. Everybody’s been receiving three to five phone calls a day” from people wanting swarm removal. That’s good news for bees – and for the planet. Honeybees pollinate about one third of all crops. Without bees, we’d have no almonds, no blueberries, cherries, or apples, no avocados, cucumbers or onions. Yet the populations have been dropping, at least in part due to pesticide use.

If someone is interested in getting a hive, Ben recommends they tell their neighbors first. “They start nervous, but when promised honey, they’re good.” Plus, “If you have fruit trees or gardens, you get bumper crops, up to five miles from your house.”

The fascination with bees and the love of honey drive beekeepers. Ben notes that beekeeping is not very profitable, moneywise, unless you have hundreds of hives. However, “Educationally and environmentally, it’s very profitable.”

Abq Beeks offers mentoring and hands-on experience for new beekeepers. The website lists events and has a forum for discussions. It also has phone numbers for people who handle bee swarms. 

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page


  1. Thanks for sharing about the habits of bees ~ not so "scary" now ~ and the sourcing of the local honey I've come to love and now buy at the Farmers Market in Las Cruces. True, raw honey is delicious ~ I never did like that grocery-bought stuff ~ and it's helping to tame my seasonal allergic reactions as well.

    1. You're welcome. Great to know you're finding the local honey good for seasonal allergies. I have lots of those – I guess I need to find more excuses to eat honey!