Pollinators Make Life Sweeter for Beekeepers in Mesilla Valley
Consider El Paso resident Vibert Skeete a busy bee with his recent hobby.
A substitute teacher for Socorro Independent School District, Skeete has kept bees in his backyard for about a year. He has two hives, one marked blue and a more aggressive red hive.
Skeete started learning about the hobby from books and YouTube videos. By keeping bees, he also aims to improve his and his family’s health.
“I was getting concerned about all the processed food that we eat as a family. We wanted to start to go in a more natural direction and so starting with a simple thing like sweeteners or sugars was the way to go," Skeete said.
Before inspecting a beehive box, called a “super,” Skeete wears white leather gloves and a netted headpiece for protection.
“Protect my head, why? Because I’m already wearing a long sleeve shirt. It’s light in color so this should not irritate the bees," Skeete said.
He lights his smoker with a mix of shredded paper and dry leaves. The smoke tricks the bees into thinking there’s a forest fire. They respond by gorging themselves on honey to take with them someplace else.
Once Skeete finishes smoking the hive, he removes the lid to inspect the top super.
“Now the reason why they’re not attacking us in full force is because most of the aggressive bees are out gathering food," Skeete said. "And the ones that are here, these are the nurse bees that are taking care of the hive and the queen."
Skeete uses a curved hive tool to remove frames from the super. They’re stuck together by a bee glue called propolis. The bees build honeycomb in an egg-shaped pattern. Skeete points out a string of capped honey.
“This nice. dusty-looking like white sugar thing over the honey? That’s when they’re finished filling it up with honey, they cap it with this nice wax," Skeete said.
Aside from cost, Skeete said his biggest challenge as a beginner was that he didn’t know anyone else keeping bees. Then he attended his first meeting with the Paseo del Norte Beekeepers Association, with more than 60 members.
"The hope is that I can use the experience and wisdom of those persons to basically help me to become a better beekeeper and to basically help to protect my environment by supporting all the work that the bees do to make sure we have a healthy and happy environment to live in," Skeete said.
The association meets monthly, alternating between Las Cruces and El Paso.
Member Carol Pouy is a farmer and private tutor. Pouy and her husband George have cared for bees on and off for 30 years. A decade ago, they bought a farm in Chamberino south of Las Cruces.
Pouy cares for seven hives but wants to expand to 10. When she checks a hive, which varies in frequency depending on how new it is, Pouy looks for different indicators.
“I want to see if any critters have gotten into the hives, I want to see if the hive looks healthy... if the queen is laying eggs in the egg-shaped pattern or if she’s scattered around. If the eggs are scattered around it may mean that she’s starting to fail and needs to be replaced," Pouy said.
Pouy removes a frame from the super of one hive to discover it's filled with bee larvae.
“Oh, look at all the brood on this side. This is all capped larva," Pouy said. "And there’s some larva that’s been capped along the edges. So, these bees are doing well. I don't see any evidence of drone cells. I don't see any queen cells so everyone looks like they're okay."
That’s good news, as bee populations have declined significantly since the mid-2000s, due in part to a phenomenon known as Colony Collpase Disorder. That’s why it’s crucial to help grow their numbers.
As the queen lays eggs in the first super, a second box is added to help the brood expand. Then Pouy adds a screen to separate the queen.
“That is a queen excluder and that keeps the queen from getting up into where you’re collecting honey but it allows the worker bees to come up and deposit nectar and pollen," Pouy said.
Pouy used to use an extractor to process the honey she harvested twice a year. Now she uses flow hives to collect the sweet substance and sells it at the farmer’s market in Sunland Park.
When he moved into his El Paso home, Skeete said the backyard was bare. But he learned flowers help to attract pollinators like bees and other insects. Now he tends a small garden with sunflower, rose and lantana plants.
“If you don’t have food to eat nobody wants to come with you. If you have a party without food, it’s not a good party," Skeete said. "So, for the bees it’s the same thing, once they have a yard where there are flowers that they can forage and basically get some food, it’s wonderful for them."
Skeete said he hopes to expand to four hives by next year. For Pouy, keeping bees is “almost magical.”
“You see this little tiny insect and you see what it’s able to do. You see how they take care of each other, you see the cycle and how they get along with each other and the end you end up with something that’s delicious. So, it’s just fascinating to watch," Pouy said.
Whether novice or pro, beekeepers say raising pollinators is a sweet way to keep bees bumbling.