If you ever wondered where to find beekeepers beyond the virtue of a farmer's market, steal off to a mead tasting and surely you will find them in a swarm. Mead was hot in the Dark Ages, a sweet wine brewed from honey, water and yeast. It may even be the legendary "ambrosia" spoken of in myths and fairytales. For a beekeeper, it is their preferred poison.
So off I went to a mead tasting at the home of Kate Whealan, the coordinator of the Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers. The house was cozy with soft-spoken beekeepers sipping mead around a warm fire. So inviting was the scene, a spider dipped into the conversation from the viga above Darragh Nagle's head, founder of Falcon Meadery and Winery in Santa Fe. Ironically, Nagle had been discussing the first time he drank blackberry mead on a camping trip, and sharing a bottle cap full with a bee. The quick descent of a walnut sized spider directly over his head may have caused hysteria, but hardly with this lot. So amused were they, the place exploded with laugher when Whealan apologized, "Oh darn, she came down early today." After the spider was gently relocated, and order was restored, the place began humming about Falcon Meadery, the keeper's queens and their broods, as well as the vanishing bee enigma known as Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD.
Until recently, the honeybee's record of vitality was spotless in the ecosystem. Bees survived when the dinosaurs could not. These creatures sustain themselves, and have a work ethic some of the most modernized nations could learn from. Their systematic procedures for building colonies have inspired architects for centuries and environmentalists envy their self-sustaining food systems.
Honeybees are charged with pollinating the fruit, vegetable and nut crops, which make up approximately one third of the U.S. diet. When over 30 states began reporting 50 to 90 percent of their bee colonies were vanishing unexplainably, everyone from entomologists to agriculturists and mead makers went on high alarm. Beekeepers started fearing that they may never get stung again.
Throughout history, honeybees have been known to "dwindle", but this is nothing short of a full-fledged disorder. Luckily, the Sangre de Cristo beekeepers interviewed for this article did not report CCD in their personal hive populations or those of their colleagues in northern New Mexico. A few acknowledged they have beekeeping friends in other states whose hives suffered significant losses in 2007. New findings reported in the January '08 issue of Discover Magazine suggests entomologists are closing in on the serial bee killer, having discovered a direct link to Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), an illness which can lead to the shivers, paralysis and death in honeybees.
Darragh Nagle relies on a commercial beekeeper to provide 500 lbs of honey a month to produce Falcon's stock. He has obvious concerns about CCD as it could affect the availability and cost of honey in his marketplace.
Expectedly, the Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers are also concerned. Slow handed and composed people, they even made slicing the Stilton I brought to the party look graceful. But shy, no they were not. Another couple sips of Falcon's potent Mountain Mead and out flew the private details of the intimacy in their hive relationships.
"I can hear when my bees are irritable", said Jerry Anderson, a Sangre de Cristo Beekeeper. I asked whether he can also hear the bees getting drunk on honey and dancing around. He replied, "Oh yes, we know when they are having a good time in there."
When asked if it takes being an animal lover to be a good beekeeper, Whealan said, "That would help, but what's more important is for a beekeeper to truly understand the depth of natural systems."
As much as these urban beekeepers seem to dwell on the fragility and mental health of their bees, their hearts also weigh heavy about the social climate with neighbors. I admit to being paralyzed if a lone bee so much as buzzes my head on a hot summer day. The sound of a pulsing hive over my neighbor's coyote fence could send me running for my life and maybe even make an agoraphobic out of me for the rest of the week. Well these beekeepers looked me dead in the eye and said they only get stung about half a dozen times a year, if that at all. My parrot bites me more often than that, and she is the furthest thing from being a workhorse in my ecosystem. Apparently most bees sting only to defend the hive or their work. Most bees will not attack if left alone.
One might expect a beekeeper to have an awareness of sudden variations in the day such as the weather, the wind and even shadows when seasons change. I was totally convinced of this when on Whealan's windowsill I found a Weather- Channel device that could likely report the temperature in space. In spite of modern day tools, the ancient craft of bee domestication has proved overwhelmingly practical throughout the ages. The earliest proof of which was found to exist in Egypt in 900 BC. Archeological evidence shows that commerce for honey existed probably around the time the Bible was written.
Despite this chronicle of domestication, it remains unlikely these sticky-faced insects could love unconditionally. You won't catch any flies by saying that to a mead tasting beekeeper. By the time we got to Falcon's Dry Peach, they divulged senses of guilt and heartache if a single bee is squished in the business of robbing honey. Similar to any dog or cat owner with a conscience, beekeepers concern themselves with the diet and health of their honeybees. Like a breeder of purebreds, they are well versed on the stress levels of their queen and her brood. Whealan takes such great care of her hives; she's built what looks like little bathhouses for them. Ornate wooden structures topped with snow, where one might imagine bees lined up in slippers and kimonos, sipping their honey with tea.
While most of us could live perfectly well without bee stings, living without honeybees could be crippling for humans, reason perhaps to give urban beekeepers a break. Much remains unanswered about Colony Collapse Disorder. People in the beekeeping industry should not feel alone though, anyone who enjoys fruits and vegetables in their diet, much less mead, should be concerned about the syndrome. I might even get up the nerve to offer a sip the next time a bee buzzes my summer margarita.
"Just don't flinch if she lands on you, said Whealan, give her a chance to rest her wings and then she'll be on to better things."
Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers