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Working Top Bar Beehives with Les Crowder & Back in ABQ with Jessie Brown

Originally posted on Top-Bar-Beehives.com:

Les Crowder Top Bar BeehivesOn Friday morning, I traveled up to Les Crowder’s farm near Penasco, NM to see his top bar beehives and to talk about his experiences with honeybees.  Nestled in a small valley along the High Road to Taos, I found Les and his partner Heather Harrel out in their gardens, working to expand a fence around their baby ducklings and keeping the plants watered.  After securing the fence, I went with Les and his interns, Shane and Nellie, to one of the nearby bee-yards, where we began to work through the top bar beehives.  A couple of weeks ago, the hives were brought back up into the mountains from the Mesquite bloom near Truth or Consequences, NM and now it was time to check on the colonies.  As described in his book, Top-Bar Beehives:Organic Practices for Honeybee Health, Les likes to overwinter and transport his hives with two colonies in each box. Using this management technique, Les is then able to make a 2:3 split, where the two colonies (found in one hive, with a divider between them) can be made into three, easily increasing the number of hives and bees you have.

Les Croweder Top Bar BeehivesWith this plan in mind, we began to work through each hive, one-by-one.  As we went through the first half of the hive, we carefully examined each comb in order to find the Queen.  Once the Queen was found (in a fully productive colony), some of the top bar combs with open brood (eggs and small larvae) and some of the capped honey stores were moved into a new top bar hive that would then become the split.  The Queen, along with capped brood and some of the other honey stores, were left in the original, divided hive, and closed back up.  Moving into the next half of the hive, this process was repeated and more open brood and honey comb was moved into the new hive.  Through this process, you can take two productive hives (with Queens) and make a third hive (without a Queen) that will be ready to make lots of honey.  Since the third hive will have to raise a new Queen from the open brood, the bees can focus a lot more energy into storing honey because those resources (nectar and pollen) won’t be going into making more workers until the new Queen begins to lay eggs, in a month or so.

Les Crowder Top Bar BeehivesWhile the third, new colony is busy storing honey, the two other colonies will continue to expand and will greatly appreciate the open space created from the removed combs.  This will decrease their desire to swarm and, depending on the conditions, could lead to a situation where another 2:3 split can be made.

As we worked, we were able to make quite a few of these splits although there were a few colonies that we left alone.  In some cases, the colony we were looking at had either been split already, before leaving Truth or Consequences, or had a less productive Queen that would later be replaced by one that Les was already raising in another bee-yard.

Jessie Brown's HoneybeesAs the hours passed, we continued to work through the hives until we reached a point where we were all ready for lunch.  As we drove back to the house, we discussed his reasoning for moving out of the Rio Grande River Valley and into the mountains, as well as his current perspectives on beekeeping.  Over the past few years, Les explained, the area around Albuquerque has become much dryer, forcing him to reconsider the places where he keeps his honeybees.  According to Les, the valley seems to be “drying up” making it much more difficult for the bees to find nectar sources.  While the mountains have also been affected by the recent drought, Les feels that the foraging is somewhat better for the bees and now his bee-yards are closer to his home, which is now also out of the valley.  Before leaving, I was sure to purchase a couple of pounds of Mesquite honey from Les, a special honey that is produced in his top bar beehives and free of miticides, antibiotics and other commonly used beekeeping chemicals.

Jessie Brown's Top Bar BeehivesAs I left the mountains and headed back to downtown ABQ through the dry desert, Les’ move seems to be very practical and will probably serve to benefit the bees in many ways.  Entering back into Albuquerque, I headed over to Jessie Brown’s house to conduct my final interview of the day.  Arriving at Jessie’s home, I also met Paul McCarty and his family who had also recently arrived in town for the statewide, New Mexico Beekeepers Association, meeting on Saturday.  As a presenter, Paul told me a little about his experiences with feral bees in southern New Mexico and how he got involved with beekeeping.  After a few slices of watermelon and an hour of talking, Jessie (along with her two kiddos) and I headed over to two of her top bar beehives, which were located at a community garden in downtown ABQ.  Upon reaching downtown, we walked to the garden which is cared for by local veterans.  Surrounded by a chain-link fence, we squeezed through an opening and entered the garden area where her hives are located.  Since the garden is located amongst various commercial and residential properties, as well as surrounded by concrete sidewalks, Jessie’s hives are also surrounded by a fence, although this one is made out of wooden slats.  Like a small shed without a roof, the beehives could hardly be seen within the structure although the spray-painted honeybees on the outside alluded to the bees that live inside.

Jessie Brown Top Bar BeehivesUpon reaching the bee-yard, Jessie unlocked the door and showed me her hives.  Like other top bar beehives found in open fields, her bees didn’t seem to mind being surrounded by the eight foot high wooden walls and were busy flying in and out, collecting nectar, water and pollen.  After looking around,  I interviewed Jessie, learning about the local social beekeeping group, the Beeks, she is a part of and her future place as a beekeeper.  At this point, she is a mentor to a handful of new beekeepers and is working on creating a beekeeping school that would serve to educate people about bees, management practices and various philosophies.  After our interview, we headed back to her house and I was invited to stay for dinner with her, the visiting guest speakers and other members of the New Mexico Beekeepers Association, including Megan Mahoney and Adam who I had met yesterday.

As everyone arrived, I listened to Paul McCrarty and Dr. James Nieh, the second presenter from UCSD, talk about their presentation topics, experiences and other work they are doing, which will be included in my post tomorrow.  As the night went on, I had the opportunity to also talk with D.J. Nickles and his wife about their beekeeping experiences as well as hear more about the local Queen rearing project that Megan is spearheading.  With a full day of beekeeping presentations planned for tomorrow, I eventually said thank you and goodbye to everyone and headed out to get some rest.