Beekeeping in The Zuni Mountain Expanse
My wife and I have found beekeeping in the Ramah, New Mexico region to be both challenging and rewarding. We have 20+ hives scattered throughout the Zuni Mountain expanse at an elevation of 7,000 ft. and higher. The Continental Divide runs through the Zuni Mountains leaving a very diverse landscape of grasslands, lava fields, plateaus, cliffs, and canyons. The lower elevation areas are Pinyon-juniper woodlands while the higher elevation consists of Gambel oak, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa. These unique ecosystems are far removed from any type of land development and commercial farming. This means that the bees depend solely on their natural habitat for food, pollen, and water.
When scouting for potential hive locations, we look at federal land (which requires a special use permit) but mostly we end up getting permission from private owners to place hives on property that borders federal land. No matter whom we deal with, our number one priority is to be legal, respectful, and transparent. This protects our brand and reputation, as well as that of the New Mexico Beekeepers Association, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, and the greater beekeeping community.
There are two critical elements for determining hive placement.
The first is adequate forage within a one-mile radius. Evaluating a forage area usually requires making a few trips to the prospect site, in spring, summer, and fall. It is awfully difficult to estimate how many hives an area can support, so we rarely place more than two to four hives in one apiary. The second critical element is a nearby dependable water source. While there might be a few intermittent streams and seasonal ponds, finding a year-round spring or water source is much more challenging.
The next phase of the decision-making process involves accessibility. Access to our hives is usually by way of gravel and dirt roads. Some of these are maintained, some are not. Accessibility can depend on weather conditions; hives at higher elevations are typically not accessible for several months each winter due to heavy snow. To further protect the bees, we position the hives at a satisfactory distance from the roadside. Impassible road conditions have sometimes required us to hike a good distance to check the hives. Often there’s a tradeoff between really good forage areas and accessibility, but we enjoy beekeeping enough to negotiate tricky conditions when necessary!
Once location and nectar source have been determined, hive selection becomes important.
We primarily use eight-frame Langstroth and Warre hives with an occasional top bar. The flexibility that the Langstroth offers, in addition to frame compatibility, makes it easy to work with. However, the eight-frame Langstroth is still too spacious for small colonies in our microclimate, so we overwinter small colonies in Langstroth double nucs. For the sake of uniformity, Langstroth frames with queen cells are used for queen rearing in modified Langstroth boxes. In addition, the Langstroth can accommodate various sizes of super. We use the extra shallow super with foundationless frames for comb honey production. Extra shallow, shallow, and mediums are used for honey extraction.
The Warre hive has also earned its spot in many of our apiaries for three reasons. First, the bees winter better in a Warre with the least amount of stored food. Second, the Langstroth and Warre are somewhat compatible by using a Lang Nuc-to- Warre transfer box. Third, supering a Warre allows us to target a particular honey flow. Our Warre supers contain approximately thirteen to fifteen pounds of extracted honey that can be filled and capped by the bees in a seven-day timeframe. These lightweight supers are easy to transport by foot over longer hiking distances.
Hive positioning completes the decision-making process.
If the hives are in bear territory, we defend by using a solar-powered electric fence. Our Certified Naturally Grown certification recommends that we keep hives 16” inches off the ground. For this reason, we build custom hive stands for all of our hives. Each stand has built-in tiedown points to ensure that the hives can withstand extreme wind gusts. Overheating is not a problem at our elevation—in fact, we paint the hives a darker color to absorb the sun’s heat. To encourage early morning bee activity, we face the entrance of the hive in a southern or southeastern direction. We also look for boulders and trees that can provide natural protection from the cold north wind. In a well-ventilated hive, healthy colonies can survive in very cold temperatures. Our winter nighttime low can dip well below 0°F; we’ve seen -32°F.
Hopefully some of our knowledge and experiences will prove helpful to those who want to keep healthy honeybee colonies in unique and fragile ecosystems. We are always learning and improving our beekeeping techniques and practices. Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. We would enjoy hearing from you!
Rhett Renoud and his wife Sarah run Wild Honey Ranch, specializing in holistic hive management and raw honey production. Find them at wildhoneyranch.com
I hold a Master of Science degree in Education. And while I can be a bit of an isolationist, I do believe in sharing knowledge and encouraging people to live quality lives. When not working on the ranch, I enjoy RVing, hiking, woodworking, organic farming, and traveling. My passion is self-sustainability, rural living, and being in nature.