Killer Honey Makers

At Sun Apiaries Farm in Avra Valley, Jaime and Kara de Zubeldia are taming Africanized honeybees to draw amber sweetness from the desert.

September 7, 2017

Issue 26: September/October 2017Meet Your Farmer

On a monsoon-sticky morning, Jaime de Zubeldia hands me a straw hat with attached veil and advises me to wear it. Then we walk past a dozen white, boxlike Langstroth beehives. The buzzing jumps a few decibels.

“You can hear them working,” he says through a veil that matches his dark hair. “If I haven’t been managing their resources correctly, they get cranky. Have you ever been stung before?”

I reach for my writing pen, thinking, I should have brought an EpiPen.

Jaime and Kara de Zubeldia designed their Avra Valley farm according to permaculture concepts; they work between 100 and 200 colonies of honeybees.

The de Zubeldias work between 100 and 200 colonies of honeybees and hope to expand to 300 in the fall. But these aren’t the docile European variety, selected for thousands of years for their mild manner. Ninety percent of the de Zubeldia’s hives are Africanized.

You’ve probably heard about them. For more than two decades, since the honeybees first began appearing in the warm southern regions of the United States, reports of attacks have topped the news. The angry swarms chasing people for a quarter mile. The thousands of stings. The deaths. And how impossible it is to tell the difference between Africanized and the familiar European honeybees—until you disturb their hive by something as innocuous as mowing your lawn.

“I have a gut instinct that Africanized bees can be of some use,” Jaime says, explaining that the species is resistant to varroa mite infestation, tolerates environmental toxins like pesticides, and is supremely adapted to our desert conditions. They also happen to be good producers of honey.

“The downside is their temperament, which I’m working on. Once in a while—maybe 3 to 5 percent of the time—I run into a dangerously vicious hive that scares the pants off me.”

Jaime’s wife, Kara, is the assistant director for business consulting at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Business Management, although Jaime says his goal is to
someday hire her at the farm. They met in Tucson in 2008, he says, “during a spring when I had a bunch of extended family visiting from all over.” Jaime’s mother was born in the cornhusker state and his father grew up Jalisco, Mexico, and was “always planting things.” In 1986, the family moved from Colorado Springs to this mesquite-weary patch in Avra Valley because “Dad wanted more space and less winter.”

The family raised chickens and hogs and then Jaime took an interest in beekeeping. He started with three hives. Over the years, and with the addition of Kara, the two built a honey operation using permaculture concepts like organizing radiating circular zones according to plant and animal needs, creating guilds of plants and animals that work well together, conserving native species, and rainwater harvesting.

Ninety percent of the de Zubeldia’s hives are Africanized, well-adapted to desert conditions and resistant to varroa mite infestation.“ The downside is their temperament, which I’m working on,” says Jaime.

Today, we walk among the swales that ripple the property, some of them still holding runoff from last night’s thunderstorm. Mesquite branches hang with yellow catkins. The farm is an island of blooming trees where others across the valley look dark and skeletal. “Really dry over there,” Jaime says after I point out the difference. “It’s hard to produce a crop when mesquite honey is collected in the challenging months of May and June.”

We feed Scout and Annie, a pair of Nubian goats that are the family’s pets. Giant pallets of beetle-killed lumber stand beside his unfinished workshop where Jaime will plane the wood for bee boxes. “We’re supporting local companies by using locally sourced wood probably on its way out anyway. It’s enough to expand to 500 to 600 hives.”

He lifts the clear lid on a “solar wax-melter,” which looks like a hope chest propped at an angle. “We hold back the used wax to make new foundations for the bees to build their comb. Expanding and contracting the hive is an art form,” he adds. “Bees can’t heat and cool a space they aren’t ready for.”

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams,” said Thoreau, who had an affinity for the insects himself. He believed the occupation suggested a nobler connection to nature. This one has been going on for 8,000 years.

“It’s about reading the combs,” Jaime explains, “watching for clues and making adjustments.” Three castes are involved: the queen, the male drones, and tens of thousands of workers. The latter have different, age-related roles as nurse bees, house bees, undertakers, architects, honey-makers, and foragers—all supporting the colony and its single queen. When Jaime opens a hive, he looks for things like the levels of stored pollen, the construction of queen cells indicating a coming swarm, and how much food the nurse bees are feeding the larvae. “Are the babies fat and happy and floating on a surplus of jelly or do they look dried out?”

Jaime checks on a hive, looking for levels of stored pollen and queen health, among other things.

Then there’s what he calls “queen management”: “What I do is like playing music with other musicians. It could be beautiful or it could be a train wreck.”

This is where the de Zubeldias are on the front lines of advancing apiculture.

Beekeeping changed forever after 1957 when 26 Tanzanian queen bees (Apis mellifera scutellata), with their European worker bee swarms, accidentally escaped from an experimental apiary in Brazil. By the early 1990s, these Africanized bees had spread into the southern United States and had begun hybridizing with European honey bees. Today, researchers estimate that almost 100 percent of wild bee colonies in Arizona are Africanized.

Killer bees are here to stay.

“Drones are where the problem lies,” Jaime says. He says that virgin queens will come out of the hive and fly three or four miles to find a mate. “Africanized drones have a mating advantage over European—they’re lighter and faster.”

Historically, beekeepers positioned hives for opportune mating, hoping for the right drones from the right colonies (queens may mate with 15 to 20 drones from different colonies). In this way, they selected for good traits like disease resistance and mild temperament. Predictable behavior is the key. For 10 years, Jaime has been systematically selecting less aggressive Africanized bees as the base of his stock with the goal of selling mated queens to the public in the future.

“It’s a numbers game,” he says. “Open mating controls only 50 percent of the equation. Instrumental insemination gives us another level of mating control to the point that either the occasional vicious hive is eliminated, or the aggression is significantly reduced.”

Instrumental insemination. I picture nanoliter micropipettes and bee drones and queens strapped to tiny gurneys.

The de Zubeldias recently received a Utah State University Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant that will allow them to apply the technique to his gentle Africanized strain and thereby control the source of the drone semen. Jaime has just returned from training in South Carolina.

A few of one of Jaime’s hives.

“Complete elimination of aggression may be too optimistic, so we will also be measuring other pros and cons of open mating versus instrumental insemination using pure European stock and a hybrid of European and Africanized,” he says.

We retreat from the hives and cool shade of the mesquite trees, through the pomegranate and heirloom citrus, the Mexican lime he grew from seed, to his modest home in the center of the farm. Jaime offers me a cup of tea, and while the water boils, he sets jars of honey in front of me. Then spoons.

“Try the tulip poplar,” he says. “It’s from South Carolina. Along with clover, the flower is one of the best for producing honey.”

Mild with a hint of smoke. Next I sample a light, delicate holly honey from South Carolina. The flavor is as unfamiliar as its place of origin.

“This is our varietal,” he says, placing a large jar next to my steeping tea. “One hundred percent mesquite.”

I unscrew the lid and load the spoon.

It tastes like liquid sunlight. ✜

Ken Lamberton’s latest book, Chasing Arizona, was a 2015 Southwest Book of the Year.

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