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Four Corners Beekeepers Association provides education, support

Benefits of bees, beekeeping are vast
Bee swarm in a tree ready to be rescued. (Courtesy Tina Sebestyen)

Four Corner Beekeepers Association, founded in 2009 by Tina Sebestyen, has grown rapidly as a learning, mentoring and sharing organization.

The group offers quality package bee ordering, equipment borrowing and low-cost seminar costs to make beekeeping more affordable and accessible. 4CBA now has 220 paying members, along with over 800 people on their email list.

Sebestyen was inspired to launch the group when she heard a conversation about bees between her father and her great-uncle.

Her uncle’s great-grandfather had been a beekeeper, and Sebestyen’s father, who lived in Farmington, said their conversation got him interested in beekeeping.

Sebestyen said that for his birthday, she gave her father bees and found a mentor to help teach them how to care for bees.

The mentor Sebestyen found was Bill Loomis, an Aztec beekeeper. He was “a great, really fun friend … just so generous with his time and really, really nice,” Sebestyen said.

Tina Sebestyen founded Four Corners Beekeeping Club in 2009. (Courtesy Tina Sebestyen)

“The first time I was in the hive with that guy, I fell in love. … These are amazing,” Sebestyen said. “But my dad really never did fall in love with them that way. He never really could get over his fear of the bees,” she said.

His fear was compounded by illness.

“My dad got cancer right about then, and that was the last two years of life … and then he was gone. I got his bees, and I've just been taking off ever since,” Sebestyen said.

Caring for the bees became a therapeutic endeavor for Sebestyen.

“Actually, beekeeping itself is really calming and soothing. It’s a wonderful, therapeutic thing to do,” Sebestyen said, adding that people who are depressed or have trouble with anger can greatly benefit from beekeeping.

It’s about bonding

Sebestyen compared working with bees to horseback riding.

“If you go out there and you’re angry or frustrated or in a hurry, you’re gonna get it, but if you stop and you calm down and move slowly,” you’ll be able to sense their frequency, she said. “Most of our beekeepers drink their coffee with their bees in the morning, and they watch them come and go … even being near the hive you get this amazing, wonderful feeling,”

Sebestyen said bees are not “an attacking sort of creature.” They die after stinging and only do so in self-defense. She said they may become aggressive during the collection of honey, especially if someone is clumsy or squeezes and hurts the bees.

“Bees are actually so intelligent … they have facial recognition, so my bees know they’re my bees,” Sebestyen said. “It's sort of something you get hooked on … you start out with a couple of hives and then you want more and more all the time.”

For Sebestyen, beekeeping is a hobby, but she does sell her honey, ‘Hog Heaven Honey’ at local farmers markets. She raises hogs, too.

Sebestyen also believes strongly in the health benefits of honey and bee pollen.

Honey may not help directly with allergies, Sebestyen said, but “it’s an amazing immune booster.” She pointed out that most allergies come from wind-borne pollen, while bees collect non-wind-borne pollen.

Beehives are often important elements of urban gardens because of the pollination services they provide. Honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year, including more than 130 types of fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to USDA.

Sebestyen said the relationship between bees and agriculture is complicated. With so much big corporate agriculture, biodiversity suffers and bees need a variety in their diet.

Sebestyen, who lives between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs, keeps some her hives at an alfalfa farm near Aztec. She said the weather and diversity make it the “Garden of Eden for beekeeping.”

The curious nature of bees

Bees are coldblooded insects, but when in a hive or swarm they are a warm-blooded superorganism, Sebestyen said.

Bees always consider the superorganism, the whole colony as more important than themselves, Sebestyen said in an email, “so if one of them gets sick, they just fly away and don't ever come back.”

“Swarms are when the mother queen leaves the hive with about half of the bees so that her daughter can become the new queen. The swarm goes a short distance from the hive and all of the bees cluster around the queen on a branch, or other convenient object,” Sebestyen wrote.

Some of those bees become scouts looking a new home. According to Sebestyen, bees love the eaves of a house, but might move into any properly sized hollow cavity, possibly even a hole carved by woodpeckers.

Swarming bees will hang in the cluster anywhere from 20 minutes to three days. This is the best time for a beekeeper to rescue them and house them in a beehive. When the bees find the right place, they take off all at once and move into the new home very quickly.

Bee colony numbers can be estimated by hive size and weight, but commercially they use frame size.

A honeybee hive usually has between 20,000 and 80,000 bees living together in a colony. A colony is made up of one queen bee and several hundred male drones, with female worker bees making up the balance. All the bees share one goal, survival of the colony.

Frame count is the metric used by growers and beekeepers to measure the population size of a hive. Sebestyen said that size can also be measured by weight, with about 3,500 bees to 1 pound.

During the active season, workers forage for food, store honey for winter and build combs. During winter, their population decreases significantly, as bees are not able to operate or flex shivering muscles when temperatures drop to 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sebestyen said bees cluster together around the honey, trying to maintain temperatures in the range of 67 F to 75 F during cold weather. When the winter solstice arrives, they start raising larvae, keeping the brood chamber where the larvae are at 96 degrees. They do this all the time no matter what is going on outside, Sebestyen said.

The brood chamber, usually in the bottom boxes of the hive, houses worker-made cells where the eggs, larvae and pupae develop. Some of the cells in this part of the hive also hold pollen, nectar or honey that is used to feed the developing larvae.

Many beekeepers use a screen called a “queen excluder” to keep the queen in the hive's lower boxes. This stops her from laying eggs in the honey supers, or upper boxes, which hold the frames that the beekeeper removes to collect the honey.

Sebestyen assists a commercial queen raising bee operation in Texas, working with aggressive Africanized bees. She shows her queen cell grafting frame for queen rearing. (Courtesy Tina Sebestyen)
Services for beekeepers

4FBC offers swarm rescue as a free service so long as they are not attached to a structure. Removing bees from a structure like a house is expensive and time-consuming, Sebestyen said.

When a swarm of bees is observed, community members should call 4FBC’s dispatcher as soon as possible so a beekeeper can rescue the bees. The swarm hotline that serves the Four Corners Region is (970) 769-2661.

“If people see a big ball of bees hanging in a tree, the sooner they call the swarm hotline, the better,” Sebestyen said.

It is illegal to take bees across state lines, as each state has distinct regulations regarding bees. There are numerous diseases that affect bees, with American foulbrood being the most common. A federal regulation requires that if bees have AFB, they must reported and the colony must be burned alive.

If swarming bees are not rescued and try to make it through the winter without human help, they have only a 20% chance of survival. The mite, Varroa destructor, will likely take them out.

Sebestyen said their organization is a member of People and Pollinators Action Network, which advocates for biodiversity as a key to healthy ecosystems.