It’s 9:15 am and a quiet hum is audible from where we stand, in an apiary, in an orchard in the Arroyo Seco neighborhood of Taos, New Mexico. We are here just as the morning is beginning to lift which, we have been told, is a calm time for the bees. Once the afternoon heat hits and the threatening rain clouds roll in, the bees will be worked into a frenzy. Regardless of the morning calm, we are directed to put on bee suits that cover our upper bodies and our faces. This is the home site of Taos Bee, an apiary and skin care company that continues the ancient but often forgotten tradition of using bee products for skin care. A few of us from the Los Alamos Co-op have been invited to come for a tour.
Moira, the owner and bee keeper assures us that the bees really are friendly and that they will mostly be minding their own business as we intrude into their homes. Adequately covered and curious, we proceed, following Moira to watch her open the hives and check in on her hard-working girls. The skin care products for which Taos Bee is known feature pure, minimally processed, honey, propolis and wax. Today, Moira will show us her methods of harvesting and preparing the products.
Moira got her start in beekeeping fifteen years ago as an organic farmer. While acting as a caretaker for her mother, Moira realized first-hand how the honey and propolis she applied soothed and protected her mother’s skin from drying out and infection. It was because of this experience that she began her skin care line. Taos Bee has expanded over the years to include Apiaries in three different locations around the town. The company supplies several Cooperative Markets, including the Los Alamos Co-op, as well as the Taos Farmers Market and continues to grow.
While the company continues to expand, Moira remains firm in her conservative methods of harvesting. She takes from the bees just what she needs to continue her work. This means only harvesting honey and propolis about once a month from different hives. She will stop harvesting completely around mid-August to allow the bees to build up a store of honey for the winter. During the winter, bees do not leave the hive to forage and have to survive on what they collect over the summer.
In this Apiary, there are twenty-three hives and most of them are of a top bar model. They are single-storied, rectangular in shape and have wooden removable bars across the top. The bees attach and hang their combs vertically, from each of the wooden bars in a process called “knitting.” Propolis coats the combs and top bars, securing them down, “bee glue” Moira explains. To collect the propolis, Moira gently scrapes it from the sides. Propolis is a bee product that, along with honey, is used in most of Taos Bee’s merchandise. Propolis is made from the sap of trees, and while varying flora will result in different compositions of propolis, all propolis is made up of polyphenols, specifically flavonoids, which are produced by plants and are thought to have beneficial properties.
To collect the honey, she cuts honey comb from the wooden bar and mashes it in a bucket. After the comb is mashed, she allows the honey to drain from the comb through a sieve for hours. This process separates the wax comb from the honey. She leaves the drained wax comb outside near the hives for the bees to pick clean of the remainder of pollen and honey. The cleaned wax is then placed into a solar melting box, where it is gently heated by a solar panel and melted into wax bars for easy storage. These wax bars are ready to be made into Taos Bee balms, soaps and candles.
Near the end of our visit, Moira encourages us to gather some of the fresh apricots laying around under one of her many fruit trees. They are delicious. The apiary is surrounded by an orchard. Apple and apricot trees provide, even on dry years like this one, at least a modest amount of fruit blossoms for the bees to forage from. In return, the fruit blossoms are pollinated and able to bear fruit. As we leave, laden with the Co-op’s order of Taos Bee products and a handful of apricots, we are reminded of the many ways that bees are useful to us and crucial to the world in which we live.