Monday, July 6, 2015

Swarming Sofa: Raising Bees in the Southwest

In my recent posts, I've profiled Bee Chama Honey of Polvadera, New Mexico, and described meeting beekeepers in “Hive Mind: Raising Bees in the Southwest.” I met another beekeeper last year while working on an article for enchantment magazine, published by NMRECA. Here is that story:

Raymond Espinoza has a sofa infested with bees. The sofa had been on a porch. The homeowner left the bees alone at first, and neither she nor her dogs got bitten. But new neighbors have young children who like to visit. Ray brought the sofa to his property in Belen so he can collect the bees and add them to his hives.

First Ray invites me to place a hand against the fabric on the side of the sofa. There’s an odd vibration from the bees underneath. Ray cuts into the side of the couch. It peels back to reveal slabs of honeycomb – and thousands of bees. Ray uses a special vacuum to draw some of the bees into a box. This method allows him to collect swarms with very few bee deaths. Ray gently cuts off pieces of honeycomb of about the right size to fit in a frame.

Vacuuming bees
Ray, a retired state employee, is fairly new to beekeeping. He and his wife were looking out the window and Juanita said, “I think I need new glasses. Is that tree moving?” They found a huge swarm in an apple tree. Ray called Hays Honey & Apple Farm in Bosque Farms, south of Albuquerque, but Mr. Hays didn’t do captures anymore. He said, “Why don’t you do it?” Ray bought equipment from Hays, but by that time the swarm had moved on. “I tried to return the equipment, but Hays said, ‘Why don’t I sell you a hive?’”

Ray trained to be a certified bee master apprentice, taking classes and putting in volunteer hours. What started as a hobby became a business, Antiguas del Norte. Ray’s focus is on getting more hives in production. A dozen box hives cluster in one corner of his yard. You can’t put too many hives in one place, or the bees will steal each other’s honey instead of making more. Ray also puts hives on other people’s property and services them, sharing the honey.

Ray in his heavy-duty suit
Handling Swarms

Ray also goes out on swarm captures. “I get the calls that nobody wants,” he says. “The two-story homes, under mobile homes, in cinderblocks.” In one, Ray needed a cherry picker to reach the swarm. He adds, “Whenever I do swarm capture, I like to educate the homeowners so they are not afraid and know what to do next time or what to advise neighbors.”

Once Ray tried to go without equipment and got stung in the face. Now he has extra-tough beekeeping gear, designed for Africanized bees. Not that getting stung is all bad – he feels that bee stings help his arthritis.

Juanita helps with the bees. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s amazing to watch. They’ll work for a collective goal.” She reads a lot of science fiction and wonders how many stories were inspired by bee behavior.

Their preteen daughters even have their own suits. They’ll hold the frames while Ray works, or stand by to hand him things. Ray sometimes brings in drones, male bees that cannot sting, for the girls to play with. “They’re so cute,” the younger one says. The older adds, “They have cute eyes and cute little thoraxes.”

Albuquerque has 150 to 200 estimated backyard beekeepers. Ray thinks that big apiaries may go away, because they use too many chemicals and are susceptible to disease. “Home beekeepers may save bees,”  he says. Urban beekeeping works well because with irrigation, flowers bloom year-round. Ray notes that younger women are getting into beekeeping, so they can make their own products while staying home, and add to the family income.

The beekeepers I’ve met have been friendly and generous. It’s a good community, Ray says. He gave someone new a hive, and learned that the person gave a hive to a veteran. “People help you out if you need something. I’ve had a lot of hobbies, and this is the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s so rewarding. The bees are out there doing something good.”

And the rest of us can enjoy the delicious fruits of their labor.

For More Information: 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

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