sustainable backyard beekeeping

Teaching Beekeeping in Hopi Land

July 22, 2013

The Southwest’s rainy season is here: hooray for the clouds and rain! The bees, flowering plants, and I have all been enjoying the recent soft and pounding rains, the lightning and thunder, and the cloudy, humid weather. The rich, dank smell of the land reminds me of much greener places further east—like northeast Texas and the Southern Appalachians. The almost daily rain showers remind me of the abrupt oscillation between the dry and rainy seasons of Honduras and Panama, where I spent more than five of my first fourteen years. We have our own brief but intense rainy season here in the U.S. Southwest.

When our prevailing dry Southwest winds switch over to the Southeast around the Fourth of July, pumping moisture up from the Atlantic (Gulf of Mexico) and Pacific Oceans (Baja), we commence our precious eight to twelve week season of clouds and rain. Sunshine strikes the land, heat rises, clouds form, and thunderstorms are born, moving slowly down from the highlands to the deserts and valleys. I love this season of the year more than any other. This brief pulse of moisture in the desert is essential to the lives of the honeybees. Without the rain, many plants cannot create the flowers and nectar that becomes the honey that the bees must store and consume in order to survive the cold winters of this latitude and altitude.

As I learned during ten years of keeping beehives near Sunset Crater and the Cinder Lakes northeast of Flagstaff, the two months of wildflower blooms (Rocky Mountain beeplant and annual sunflower in particular) are absolutely essential to the honeybees’ well-being during the other ten months of the solar year, especially during the below zero nights of December, January, and February. The bees transform the clouds, raindrops, sunshine, and abundant wildflowers of July, August, and September into the stored warmth, protein, and carbohydrates that they are still living in (and on) during December, January, and February. During August, I never ceased to be in awe of the bees’ ability to make fully capped honeycombs on “blank” top bars, usually between three and ten days. A strong colony with a large workforce really knows how to “make hay” while the sun is shining—or while the nectar is flowing. Long live monsoon thunderstorms y viva las abejas! As the Hopis say, WATER IS LIFE. Living in a place that is usually so dry, one becomes that much more aware of this profound truth, and of the sacredness of water….

Speaking of Hopis, honeybees, and water, I recently had the good fortune to be asked to teach a half-day introduction to top bar beekeeping workshop on Hopi Land, near Oraibi Wash. A friend and former student of mine is creating an indigenous/Hopi “permaculture homestead” on her ancestral homelands. As part of that ongoing process of becoming even more deeply rooted in the land, and of working with the land’s character, she and her partner have taken up beekeeping. With my help, they are also beginning to teach the art, craft, and science of beekeeping to others, including young Hopis. Part of that effort is being funded with a small grant from the Natwani Coalition. This is the way that top bar beekeeping is supposed to work, as one generation of experienced beekeepers teaches the next generation about how to get started and how to keep it all going….

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Sharon (who took all of the photos included with this story) and I spent an excellent day working with honeybees and young people in Hopi Land. Some of these young people are already building their own hives and working with the bees. When we arrived just after eight a.m., a slowly drifting, leftover thunderstorm from the night before was blessing us with a gentle “female” rain. Rather than open up two hives immediately–as I had originally planned–instead we talked for about an hour under cover of a shade shelter. I talked about how and why I am an organic/holistic top bar beekeeper, about the principles of organic top bar beekeeping, and about what is actually involved in working with honeybees.

After this one-hour introduction, the sun came back out and we spent about two hours working with two different beehives.  The first was a home-made “Les Crowder style” top bar hive, and the bees were calm and seemingly very happy, even on a cool, sometimes cloudy and rainy day. All of the participants had a chance to hold and examine one or more of the top bars as we explored all twenty or so combs in the hive. We said hello to the Queen and found quite a lot of brood, honey, and pollen stored in the combs.


Looking at the arid landscape around you, one might think that honeybees would struggle to find enough food here. At first glance, the land looks dry and barren of vegetation. But that is not the case for this colony of Hopi Land honeybees. We found that they are doing very well on the local floral sources, and they have already stored enough honey to get through the coming winter.

Living as they are in a single deep Langstroth super with older, very dark combs, the second colony was not nearly as healthy or robust. The bees had recently re-queened themselves but the new queen was laying very few eggs, and most of them were drones. Even before the re-queening happened, my friends had decided to transfer this struggling colony into a second (identical) Crowder top bar hive, so we talked about how that re-hiving process could be accomplished. We decided that the colony’s lack of health was related to the old, dark combs that they are living in, and to their inability to build themselves fresh new comb.

This morning I talked to my friend via cell phone, and it sounds like the re-hiving process is going well so far.  If the summer rains keep coming and last well into September, their new top bar colony should build up enough to survive the coming winter, too. If so, then by next spring their two top bar hives might be robust enough to divide into two more colonies, and then they would have four hives.

Will there be enough forage to support four domesticated beehives next year? Only time will tell how many hives can thrive on their land, but it seems likely that bees can live here, since there is clearly more nectar and pollen in the vicinity (three to five mile radius) than meets the eye, and because there are no other beehives in the vicinity who are competing with my friends’ bees. That lack of competition makes a difference, since I have read that it takes 2,000,000 (two million) flowers to make a pound of honey, and it takes eight pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. In a top bar hive, each hexagon within a beeswax comb holds and stores the honey that bees create from the raw nectar that workers gather from flowers.

We do know that these beehives in Hopi Land will have many fruit tree flowers to work on next spring. These early spring flowers will help them to get stronger as they prepare for the main nectar flow that happens during the later monsoon season. In fact, the presence of these thousands of apple, peach, pear, plum, and other fruit trees is a primary reason why the bees are now living on the Hopi mesas, and why they need to be here. Fruit trees—especially peaches—are vitally important to Hopi culture, and the trees need the honeybees in order to turn their fragrant flowers into fruits. If there are no honeybees and/or other pollinators to help fertilize the flowers, then there will be no fruits. Although neither honeybees nor peach trees are “indigenous” to the Western Hemisphere or to Hopi Land, they are both becoming native to this place, as Wes Jackson has said.

Actually the peach is already native in Hopi Land, and the honeybee is on her way there, too: She is becoming fully “naturalized.” I admire, respect, celebrate, and participate in this sacred, life-giving process of mestizaje—this mixing and blending of cultures, peoples, and biological organisms, like the AfroEuropean honeybee and the peach tree. Fruit trees and bees are the other side of things like the smallpox virus: the light that can be found within darkness. We also call this light “diversity,” and it is essential to what some people call “sustainability.”


Looking at my own connections to the history of indigenous peoples in relationship to non-indigenous peoples on this continent, I find my own ancestors’ stories weaving themselves into the present. On the 1828 U.S. government valuations for improvements made by the Arkansas Cherokees, prior to their forced relocation (via the Treaty of 1828) from Arkansas Territory into Indian Territory (now northeastern Oklahoma), I find my British/Cherokee kinsman Jacob Gentry listed among hundreds of other Cherokees. Jacob received $489.50 from the U.S. Treasury in compensation for the value of his cabins, land, and fruit trees, as he and other Western Cherokees moved even further west, leaving their lands to be settled by citizens of the United States. Included in this total were 14 peaches, 12 “bearing” apples, and 27 young, newly planted apples that were not yet producing fruit.  (Like the Hopis, the valuations show that Cherokees were especially fond of peaches). No doubt Jacob’s peach and apple trees bore fruit because honeybees were present as vital pollinators in his and other Cherokees’ orchards, even though bees and beehives aren’t mentioned in these old documents….

As the cliché goes, what comes around, goes around, and all things are related. Long live the Hopi people, their language, their culture, their fruit trees, their honeybees, and the young and old beekeepers who are caring for the bees, trees, and the land. The same goes for the Cherokees, and, for that matter, for fruit trees, honeybees, and beekeepers everywhere, all over this blue Planet Earth.



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