Mind your own beeswax

Bees are a crucial part of the environment, pollinating one-third of the food we eat.
(Courtesy of Amy Owen, Desert Hives/Cristy Cross Photography)

Amy Owen was following an entirely different career path at New Mexico State University when she got her first taste of what would eventually become a full-time passion.

“I went to school for social work at NMSU and in getting my degree, they said we had to take a class outside of our major. I’ve always loved bugs, so I was like, ‘Taking an entomology class would be fun,’ ” Owen said. “I did and they had this whole section on social insects, which includes bees, of course.

“I was so fascinated, but at the same time I don’t even know what people do with that.”

Owen ended up earning her master’s degree in social work and got a job as a therapist before stepping away from that field after having kids. In 2015, she circled back to that interest when she learned about the New Mexico Beekeepers Association (NMBKA) certification program.

“Ever since then I’ve been completely obsessed with bees,” she said.

Indeed, after a stint leading the Albuquerque-based beekeeping group ABQ Beeks, Owen now serves as the vice president of NMBKA and owns her own beekeeping business, Desert Hives. Though obviously not everyone is as fully immersed in the culture as Owen, she says beekeeping has been gaining popularity in the Land of Enchantment.

“Having your own honey from your own backyard just seems amazing. But I hear a lot of people getting into beekeeping because they want to help bees,” Owen said. “There’s a lot more to it than just getting a hive if you want to help bees.

“In a very general sense, beekeeping or just bees are important for pollinating a third of the food we eat. It’s super important that we have bees, especially in agricultural areas. If you get into it, you need to have some mentors on your side and some resources available.”

That’s where the NMBKA certification program comes in handy. In New Mexico, a permit is not required – “New Mexico is kind of the Wild West when it comes to beekeeping,” Owen says – but a rookie hive owner is much better off venturing into the endeavor equipped with the proper type of knowledge.

The NMBKA certification is a two-year program that begins with classes and hands-on instruction from beekeepers before transitioning to hive ownership the second year. During that second year, which Owen calls more of an “independent study,” the burgeoning beekeeper will receive mentorship, do multiple readings and produce a report on the experience.

Of course, not everyone has the time to invest in such a program. In that case, Owen recommends the aforementioned ABQ Beeks (abqbeeks.ning.com), which includes a forum for questions and interaction with other local beekeepers.

“I think one of the big misconceptions is that (beekeeping is) easy, that you can just get a hive and put it in your yard and expect it to produce a lot of honey and survive through the winter,” Owen said. “In reality, it takes a lot of skill and knowledge to keep them healthy and get them through the winter. In a lot of areas of New Mexico, you just aren’t gonna get a good honey crop. You have to be by a good source of water to get a steady nectar flow to get a lot of honey.”

Outside of the initial components of the hive, aspiring beekeepers will need only a minimum amount of equipment: a veil or a full bee suit; a smoker and a hive tool, a multipurpose instrument used for inspecting and removing unwanted elements from the hive. The bees themselves usually tend to come from the Land of Enchantment, though others order different species from out of state such as Italian bees, Carniolan bees or Russian black bees.

“I think what people don’t realize in North America we have over 2,000 native species of bees,” Owen says. “New Mexico has many of those, because desert areas have a higher diversity of bees that we also need to support because they pollinate all the native plants and keep them going.”

While beekeeping might appear to be a dangerous pursuit, Owen claims that unless one has allergies, it’s quite safe with the proper knowledge. In fact, the bees themselves might be more at risk than the owners, which is why proper care is critical.

“The ironic thing is if you get into beekeeping and you don’t do it properly, you can actually harm bees more than help with the population decline,” she says. “If you’re not testing for mites or treating or getting good genetics in your hives, you can actually cause harm.”

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