by Melanie Kirby, beekeeper, queen breeder
Please allow me to introduce myself. I wear multiple hats but most of them revolve around bees. I’ve been keeping bees for 25 years and have had the immense and intense roller coaster of emotions learning from bees and working with keepers around the globe. I’ve seen healthy bees and not-so-healthy ones. I’ve seen amazing management techniques and others that were questionable, from sea to shining sea and across the “pond.” These experiences have provided me with several recurring thoughts, including the most important one which is that I have more questions than answers! These experiences have humbled me to the nurture and torture of nature. These experiences have opened my eyes to both what I’ve always felt to be true and to mysteries beyond my immediate experience. I’ve learned that bees and their keepers are fantastical storytellers weaving their journeys to make sense of their environments, their aspirations, and their survival.
But before I delve deeper into talking about bees, and wildfires- of which I have experienced the latter several times but more recently, very closely, I’d like to tell you about where I come from- as it plays a lot into how I view the bees and how I choose to manage my hives, through good times and bad…
My heritage is very important to me. I am indeed a descendant of the American “melting pot” though my roots anchor me beyond words as an Indigenous woman. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes across the United States. And there are many more that are not federally recognized. With recognition comes the prospect of being counted. Though not always and not always fairly. This is not a controversial topic. It is simply, a fact. But it is one, that is changing- albeit slowly, to becoming fairer. And that is a just thing.
I mention this because for many generations, prior to colonization in the Americas, Indigenous peoples and societies have learned from their environments how to preserve, conserve, and manage their landscapes through biomimicry and forward-thinking approaches that take into account, the generations to come. Biomimicry, holistic, regenerative, sustainable, organic, permaculture, and adaptive all have their roots in Indigenous practices.
These buzzwords have been “re-branded” and marketed to capture the interest and influence of settlers. But their roots remain the same- in truth, based on Indigenous practices. Indigenous practices are diverse. They are innovative and respectful. And despite the distinct and unique differences between Indigenous peoples, there is also a shared Indigenous WorldView- a view that sees the interconnectedness of all things and that recognizes that we all influence and depend on each other.
I take this shared worldview to heart and apply it to each of my choices- both familial and professional. I try to put my best foot forward and use my learned experiences to make decisions that I feel best support my regard for our interconnectedness. This interconnectedness definitely drives my continued approach to beekeeping.
It is this interconnectedness that I continue to reference and talk about when I give presentations. It is sometimes recognized by those who have heard me talk, and to others, it may sound like a foreign language. But I’ve been beating this same drum for over 2 decades.
I attended a beekeeping conference one year where they had listed my title as “Agriculture Philosopher.” I found that strange and slightly offensive as I wondered, “So do they think I only theorize, or do they realize that I actually practice beekeeping through a mindful lens?” Underneath their typed title, I added an additional one that read- “Consilience Researcher.”
“Consilience” means the unity of knowledge. It is the weaving together of various knowledge systems and approaches to create an interdisciplinary perspective- one that involves many disciplines and studies in order to gain a better understanding and review. I realized that most of us have been conditioned to learn about things in silos- meaning individually without context, without the relationship, and without concern for how things connect with one another.
Consilience became one of my missions to help bring this style of approach to our American apicultural industry as another valid approach to healthy beekeeping management. It has been a slow and sometimes rocky slope. But one that is gaining momentum with more interest- especially in response to the acceptance of the “rebranded” and marketed buzz words reaching more folks. This is a good thing… although it would be even better if we all acknowledged where these practices originated- with Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).
If you made it this far, you’re probably wondering how this fits into the topic of BEES & WILDFIRES? Here goes….
Bees, like other animals- including humans, react to their environment. Beekeepers have known this across cultures and millennia as we’ve learned how to approach and steward them. Our ancestors recognized that by using smoke, they could pacify the bees and remove the comb carefully. Over time, we’ve learned that the smoke actually muffles their pheromones, which is their main form of communication with each other. We’ve learned that too much smoke, or fire, can cause the bees to flee in search of a safer location. No one wants to be caught in a fire- not bees, nor humans.
This spring, my bees and I experienced the closest of dangers with raging wildfires in the southern Rockies. The fire, which started as a “controlled” burn, turned quite the opposite and merged with another “controlled” burn. These fires- called the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires merged into New Mexico’s largest state fire in history. It spanned over 50 miles long and almost 500,000 square miles in coverage. The fires were started by the U.S. Forest Service during the windiest months. Anyone who is from New Mexico or who has lived there for some time knows that you never start a fire in March, April, and even early May due to the volatile spring weather. The southern Rocky Mountain region tends to warm up in March, which causes the thaw to commence. The thawing snow creates cold air that then come April, rushes down the canyons and into the valleys causing late frosts. I call this the “Rocky Mountain Whistle” as it is notoriously windy, and yo-yo temperature swings bring hail, spring snow storms, and abrasive blowing dust.
For the locals, and especially for the Native Peoples in this region, understanding the patterns of weather, as affected by the local topography is essential for survival. Folks don’t transplant or plant directly outdoors until after Mother’s Day or even Memorial Day due to the late frost and spring snow storms. I’ve personally experienced snow as late as June 10th in this region. Local folks don’t burn cleaned brush piles or clearings from their acequias (waterways) during windy periods. But yet, the Feds with their fancy equipment and tools, thought they knew better…
The fires displaced numerous communities and wreaked havoc on businesses and industries. And though my bee farm didn’t actually burn, this whole situation caused the evacuation of the farm and family and the relocation of hundreds of hives. Our spring mountain queen production had to be put on hold until evacuation orders cleared- 8 weeks later. We spent close to $20K just in fuel to relocate all of our hives and for supplemental feed while our bees waited in apiaries over 20 miles away. The fire came close- 5 miles away from the farm. But it was close enough to upend the whole bee season.
So why did we move our apiaries? We had no idea as to which way the fire was going to go. It surrounded us and boxed in our home farm. We didn’t want to risk losing hives due to the lack of relocation. We recognized that with too much smoke in the air, our bees would not be able to smell forage as well- what was just getting blooming at the time. We also didn’t know how long the situation was going to last. Friends in communities miles away offered locations to host our hives. Some even offered to come manually help with loading hives and moving equipment and home supplies.
We are so blessed to have a caring community. We had over 20 loads of bees and equipment that we had to move. Some equipment got stacked at a valley apiary site down by the Rio Grande. Other equipment got placed into storage units that were offered at no cost to the displaced. Queens that we planned to rear for sharing with beekeepers near and far and for research were postponed and overall queen production this year has been at a fraction of what was anticipated. And while I lament on the strife of this season, I can imagine what it meant for my bees…and more so even for the landscapes that provide for them.
One can’t help but start to comprehend the gravity of shifting climate and the uncertainty it brings. Will we have a better season next year? Or will it be worse?! I am reminded of my farm partner’s persistence- farmers are forever optimists hoping that next year will be better, or the next one… But those gaps may become larger and seem insurmountable. How can we all swiftly undo what has caused such drastic weather? Is the rise of the Industrial Age at its peak or will it transform into practices and products that are more mindful of current and future generations to come? What kind of world will not only our children but also our bees and other glorious biodiversity live in?
My hope is that we will return to what our Ancestors have known- that we are all interconnected and that our actions affect each other. Indigenous peoples have been managing fire in complex and diverse landscapes. They’ve learned how to use fire as a healthy stewardship method and to support landscapes and biodiversity through Indigenous technologies and TEK.
But today’s society has been conditioned to prevent wildfires and to try to standardize practices that create mono-crop agriculture, loss of biodiversity, and forests with dry and deep understories that become tinderboxes. If we look at fire as a negative, without reflecting on its positive uses, we isolate it and begin to regard everything out of context, which is very different in our living world than in a vacuum by itself. None of us live in a vacuum by ourselves. Not us, nor our bees.
Now the monsoon rains have begun and are swiftly racing down the burn scars bringing rivers of ash and washing away homes, seeds, and what took years upon years to establish. The understory is now no story. The fire scars will last decades if not longer. The forest areas burned will have to undergo slow repair in order to recuperate. They may never return to their full glory as the fire burned so intensely, and fast that the seeds buried in the thick understory all combusted.
And so here we are at an impasse. How can we move forward and also repair the damage done? How can we better support our bees and their landscapes? How can we ensure that the generations to come learn from our experiences and truly progress in equitable and respectful ways? There is a way forward, and one that is inclusive. The way forward is through consilience. The way forward encourages us to integrate methods from varying knowledge systems- including those from Indigenous Peoples and responsible technology. The way forward is what we make it. And the way forward is also the way back…
I heard an Indigenous Elder once say in a presentation that despite the inequities, the hardships, and the imbalance, and though Indigenous practices have historically been regarded as unadvanced and backward, “Indigenous People are so far behind, we’re ahead.” Being ahead means using one’s head. Being ahead means taking into account all aspects of one’s actions. Being ahead means being cognizant of cause and effect, and of how we impact each other. Being ahead means being aware, being mutually respectful, and being mindful.
My hope, and the hope of other marginalized perspectives, land stewardship “philosophers” and practitioners are that all of us- from all perspectives can sit at the same table and have discussions on how to keep our planet intact and healthy. And, that others are willing to make the table longer and are open to listening to each other with receptivity and willingness to make life better for our bees and all of our plant and animal relatives for generations to come.
About the Author:
Melanie Kirby is a professional queen honey bee breeder and holds a Master’s in Entomology. She currently serves as the Extension Educator at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Melanie is a registered member of Tortugas Pueblo. As an interdisciplinarian, Melanie works with bees and their keepers around the globe. You can follow her on InstaGram @ziaqueenbees and @nectarnomad and at www.ziaqueenbees.com
Burkle, L., Simanonok, M., Durney, J.S., Myers, J., Belote, T. Wildfires Influence Abundance, Diversity, and Intraspecific and Interspecific Trait Variation of Native Bees and Flowering Plants Across Burned and Unburned Landscapes Front. Ecol. Evol., 02 July 2019 Sec. Population, Community, and Ecosystem Dynamics https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2019.00252/full
Evangelista, C., Kraft, P., Dacke, M., Labhart, T. and Srinivasan, M.V., 2014. Honeybee navigation: critically examining the role of the polarization compass. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1636), p.20130037. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2013.0037
Galbraith, S.M., Cane, J.H., Moldenke, A.R. and Rivers, J.W., 2019. Wild bee diversity increases with local fire severity in a fire‐prone landscape. Ecosphere, 10(4), p.e02668.
Garvey, K.K., University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources What Do Honey Bee Colonies Do During a Raging Wildfire? https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=43528
Garvey, K.K. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources 2020. The Bee People, The Bees, and The Fires https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=43585&utm_source=RSS&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS%2BFeed
Hegedüs, R., Åkesson, S. and Horváth, G., 2007. Anomalous celestial polarization caused by forest fire smoke: why do some insects become visually disoriented under smoky skies?. Applied Optics, 46(14), pp.2717-2726. https://opg.optica.org/ao/abstract.cfm?uri=AO-46-14-2717
Love, B.G. and Cane, J.H., 2016. Limited direct effects of a massive wildfire on its sagebrush steppe bee community. Ecological Entomology, 41(3), pp.317-326. https://resjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/een.12304
Mason, S.; Shirey, V., Ponisio, L., Gelhaus, J., Responses from bees, butterflies, and ground beetles to different fire and site characteristics: A global meta-analysis Biological Conservation 261 (2021) Elsevier Ltd. Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320721003177
Tan, Y.Q., Dion, E. and Monteiro, A., 2018. Haze smoke impacts survival and development of butterflies. Scientific Reports, 8(1), pp.1-10. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34043-0