Local beekeeper's research takes new form

A Fulbright in Spain cut short due to coronavirus

By Cindy Brown
For the Taos News
Posted 5/27/20

Taos News spoke with Vadito, New Mexico, beekeeper Melanie Kirby as she prepared to go to Spain to study honeybees on a Fulbright scholarship in 2019. One topic she was …

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Local beekeeper's research takes new form

A Fulbright in Spain cut short due to coronavirus


Taos News spoke with Vadito, New Mexico, beekeeper Melanie Kirby as she prepared to go to Spain to study honeybees on a Fulbright scholarship in 2019. One topic she was researching was the connection between Spanish bees and those found in New Mexico ("Did the Spanish bring bees to New Mexico?" Taos News, Jan. 2, 2020). On March 13, Kirby was advised to return home due to the coronavirus. Here is the story of her research and her return home.

Can you briefly recap the original purpose of your research under the Fulbright scholarship in Spain?

My Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship project is titled: "'Til Queendom Come: How the bees as seeds experience unfurls perfumed stories from the beehive mind to collective human consciousness."

My project is three-fold:

• Scientific: Evaluation of queen honeybee mating behavior utilizing passive RFID (radio frequency identification device) technology.

• Traditional: Site visits and interviews with Spanish beekeepers and researchers on their beekeeping practices and how they are adapting to shifting climate and land management issues.

• Cultural: Research the historical and cultural use of clay in Spanish apiculture - from cave paintings of honey hunters to hive abodes and honey vessels.

How long were you in Spain?

I arrived in Spain in mid-November 2019 and was there until middle of March 2020 - four months total. I was supposed to be there through mid-August 2020 but was required to return stateside by order of the United States Department of Education and Cultural Affairs.

Where did you focus your research while in Spain?

I was based in the Andalucía region of southern Spain, more specifically near a semirural village called Villafrance de Córdoba, which is about 25 minutes from the city of Córdoba and about 15 minutes from the Universidad de Córdoba-Campus Rabañales (which is the Environment and Agricultural Sciences Campus). There is a Centro de Apícultura (Apiculture Center) on that campus, which is where previous bee research was conducted.

What was the process like of being called back home?

I had been keeping an eye on the news as the COVID-19 virus situation was becoming more serious. Despite being concerned, I was trying to remain optimistic in the hopes that it wasn't as serious as it was all starting to sound. Spring was in full swing in southern Spain, so I had various site visits scheduled with beekeepers throughout Andalucía and was also preparing for various presentations and workshops that I was participating in.

I received a message from a couple of other Fulbright-NatGeo Storytelling fellows (one based in Vietnam and the other based in Nepal) that they had received an email encouraging them to return stateside, so I began to wonder if I would be receiving that same email. And sure enough, a couple of days later I did. The email came in at around 4 p.m. on March 13, and so I immediately called the airline that I had my original return flight scheduled with and was on hold for two hours.

I was thinking that if I would have a few days to settle my affairs before leaving since it was a Friday afternoon, and I had hoped to go to the bank and make arrangements to sell my vehicle, but the airline representative informed me that flights were beginning to be canceled and those that remained were sold out so I took the first available flight they had, which left the next morning at 6:30 a.m. from Málaga, which is about 1.5 hours from Villafrance de Córdoba.

This gave me about seven hours to get packed and drive to the airport, so I spent the remainder of the day and night retrieving my research gear and packing. I wasn't able to fit everything into my suitcases as I had acquired more equipment for my research and so I was very lucky to have one of the beekeepers I was working with to store my vehicle and drive me to the airport. At some point, I will have to go back to sell my vehicle and retrieve my remaining belongings and hopefully to finish the field research.

How was the travel?

Truthfully, the travel was horrible. I was totally sleep deprived, running on adrenaline and extremely worried. I left Málaga the following morning and flew from there to Lisbon, Portugal, and then from Portugal direct to Newark, New Jersey. My flight was changed a total of four times before I was able to get back to New Mexico.

I feel that I was safer in my small community and with the beekeepers than I felt when I was crammed in the plane and waiting in dense, too-close-for-comfort lines for screening and customs in Newark. Upon arrival in Newark, I was in line for over four hours with no restroom nor water in sight. The CDC screeners took our temperatures and gave us a pamphlet on recommendations upon our arrival.

I understand that you self-quarantined for two weeks upon your return - was that required or recommended?

Recommendations from the CDC screeners at the Newark airport told us to self-quarantine for 2-14 days. I thought I may have misheard them when they said two days, so I asked one of the screeners for clarification and they repeated the timeline. I honestly felt that two days would be insufficient, so I knew that once I arrived, I was going to wait the full 14 days.

Due to the logistics of the flights, I flew from Newark to Houston and had to spend the night at a hotel and eat in the airport. I tried my best not to get close to anyone and kept to myself as best I could given the circumstances. My farm partner picked me up from the Santa Fe airport and we went to the bee farm in Vadito. Knowing that he could possibly be exposed as well, he and I both quarantined for 14 days, only coming to town once, which was when they were doing COVID-19 testing at the Taos High School.

Because I had recently traveled, I was deemed a candidate for testing, but because he had not traveled, despite being in the same space as me, he was not a candidate for testing. No doubt this was a result of the limited number of tests that were available at that time. The health personnel conducting the testing at the Taos High School told me that I would hear back in five days and so it wasn't until the following Monday that I received a call from the New Mexico Department of Health that informed me that my test result was negative for the virus.

At this point, I immediately went to Taos to reunite with my children and my mother and sister. It was so awesome to be able to hug them in person versus FaceTime communication. My children and my farm partner had come to visit me in Spain over the winter holidays.

One of the most disappointing things about this experience is that my children and my mother and sister were scheduled to fly to Spain April 1 to come visit. This would've been my mother's and sister's first trip to Europe, and I had so hoped to be able to share the experience with them. I had applied and been selected for a supplementary National Geographic Women + Family Explorer grant to purchase their airfare. Luckily, due to all the cancellation of flights, I was able to get their airfare refunded - after trying to contact the airline several times and filing a claim with my bank.

How will you continue your research now that you are home?

Fulbright and National Geographic are encouraging fellows to accomplish as much of our projects stateside as possible. As such, I will continue to conduct interviews with Spanish beekeepers and researchers via online conferencing. I will not be able to do the field research for mating behavior research in Spain this year but I am placing a dozen research hives along the Chama and Río Grande riparian areas where I suspect there to be remnants of "Old World bees" and in the mountains for mating behavior comparison.

I start rearing queen bees this month. I will have genetic analysis conducted on samples of these bees to ascertain if and what ecotype/subspecies they are most related to (there are approximately 30 subspecies of honeybees currently recognized). I also will try to access what records are available online to learn more about the historical use of clay in Spanish apiculture and to see if I can find information linking Iberian bees to Spanish settlers. I will also be further developing my own passion for ceramics by making and offering honey pots and pollinator themed artworks.

Anything more to add?

My experiences in Spain were wonderful, from the olives and manchego cheese to the tapas, vino and flamenco. I will always cherish the memories I made there and am grateful to all the friendly Spaniards who shared their stories, bees and time with me. I am very lucky to be able to come back to New Mexico and that my farm partner has maintained our bees.

I am looking forward to continuing my locally adapted bee breeding program here in Northern New Mexico and I hope to find some supplemental work as a writer, scientist and conservationist to better support our region and land-based cultures.

My ultimate vision is to encourage the pueblos and various communities to designate Northern New Mexico as a pollinator preserve. Conservation is key to preserving biodiversity and regenerative landscapes.

I would like to add that during my time in Spain, I was invited to present at a dozen meetings and participated in several international conferences including the Association of Professional Italian Beekeepers , COLOSS (Colony Losses International Working Group, which is composed of volunteer scientists and extensionists from around the world) and EcoFlor2020 (pollinator ecologists from around the world).

I visited each province in Andalucía and had the blessed opportunity to interact with agro-ecologists, insect pathologists, horticulturists, olive growers, agritourism operators, potters, sculptors and pollinator enthusiasts in eastern, northern and central Spain as well.

I am working on a series of ESRI-StoryMaps. The first episode is available at arcg.is/bTb4n.

Also, I'll be doing community sensory presentations (honey tastings, slideshow and sharing interviews) in the fall once the health situation improves or I'll share them online if it is still unsafe to mingle.

Melanie Kirby is a professional apiculturist, queen honeybee breeder, researcher, writer, editor, educator and international consultant. She is available to consult with area beekeepers: email melanie.kirby@fulbrightmail.org. To find out more, visit her website at ziaqueenbees.com.


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