News & Publications
The College Magazine - Summer 2008
Melanie Kirby (SF97)
Melanie Kirby breeds hardy queen bees at a time when honeybees are endangered
Being persistent, inquisitive, and open to various perspectives is a lesson from St. John's that applies to many things in life, says Melanie Kirby (SF97). It's especially important in her work breeding productive and hardy queen bees, a vocation she discovered through her work as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Kirby joined the Corps after graduating from St. John's, pursuing her grade-school dream and the path inspired by her mother's own journey in the late 1960s. "I recall her sharing her stories fondly and I thought I would like to serve my country (without carrying a weapon) and immerse myself in a different culture," Kirby says. Her assignment: agricultural sector beekeeping extension volunteer, in Calle Mil, Guaira, Paraguay.
"I was probably one of a few who penciled in [on the Peace Corps application] that they wouldn't mind working with stinging insects," she guesses. After her Peace Corps stint ended, Kirby learned more about commercial beekeeping and breeding through subsequent jobs with companies on the Big Island of Hawaii and in Florida. The "bees found me," she says. "I also found that the experience of keeping bees is profound."
Zia Queenbee Co.—the name honoring her pueblo (Tortugas) and southern New Mexican heritage—is based in Dixon, N.M. Partner Mark Spitzig established sister company Superior Honey Farms on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They sell their hardy and productive bees (Rocky Mountain Reinas and Great Lakes Sooper Yooper queen bees) to other beekeepers and are happy to share their expertise. Concentrating less on honey production and more on the propagation of quality genetics, Kirby and Spitzig are involved in a niche within a niche: sustainable queen-bee rearing and beekeeping management techniques.
Sustainability in the beekeeping industry means, among other things, avoiding use of commercial chemical pharmaceuticals, making sure that honeybees are placed in safe (organically certified) zones, and achieving healthy bees through nature's "survival of the fittest" dictum. "Queen bees are the heart of their hives," Kirby says. "Without them, there is no colony."
Assisted by a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research Education for the Southwest Survivor Queen Bee Project, Spitzig and Kirby participate in a rigorous breeding program to produce queen bees that thrive in the diverse, challenging microclimates of the Rocky Mountain regions. Their business caters to clients of all types—from amateur to professional—who have in common "the strange capacity to work with stinging insects" and who benefit from the bees' exceptional pollinating ability, whether the result is a glorious garden or robust crops.
Honeybees are polite and gentle, says Kirby
Beekeepers require freshly mated queens on a regular basis. Kirby and her partner share stock with other experienced beekeepers, hoping to perpetuate "a quality genetic pool of honeybees chosen by beekeepers for beekeepers." They also collaborate with local research institutions, community organizations, and others to develop sustainable, environmentally responsible projects and to inform people about the need to promote habitats for these beneficial pollinators.
Honeybees originated in Europe, and today present as orange, black, eggplant, or a mix of browns, reds, and grays—not, Kirby says, the black-and-yellow cartoon image which more accurately depicts yellow jackets or hornets. Worker bees are all female. And the worst enemies to honeybees, she says, are human beings.
"Honeybees are quite polite creatures," she explains. Kirby prides herself on raising gentle queens, which involves painstaking attention to behavior and other traits. Because keeping aggressive honeybees can be a liability and requires specialized management, gentle bees "who respond to Mother Nature's dynamic interface are in high demand," she says.
For Kirby, beekeeping is a humbling profession. "It keeps me constantly yearning to learn more," she says. "My mind repeatedly succumbs to the addictive Johnny-esque inquiries of 'why and what does that mean?' The mystery is the allure."
By Deborah Spiegelman