Three years ago, beekeeper Moira O’Hanlon was taking care of her mom, who had advanced dementia. Her mother’s skin was in really bad shape but her doctors kept prescribing chemical-laden lotions that didn’t help and even seemed to make it worse. One day while working with her bees, O’Hanlon realized that she had all she needed to help right in front of her and started working on a balm. Her healing balm is made from royal jelly, pollen, propolis and honeybee wax from her bee hives. Not only did it heal her mother’s skin, the caregivers and everybody else who saw the difference were really enthusiastic. So O’Hanlon started Taos Bee, making and selling Bee Balm. Now, O’Hanlon helps keep bees (important pollinators for biodiversity) and her client’s skin in good health. Voices for Biodiversity’s Executive Director Kira Johnson talked with O’Hanlon about her bees, biodiversity and how you can help save both in this recent interview.
Kira Johnson: Can you tell me a bit about your bees and the current plight of the world’s bees?
O’Hanlon: I'm a top bar beekeeper, and I lost 50 percent of my bees this spring to the varroa mite — it was pretty dire. Beekeepers are generally losing 40 to 50 percent of their hives. It’s really, really bad. And not only that, the planet is losing 40 to 50 percent of the insects on earth. It’s horrifying.
Have you noticed how few bugs are on your windshield lately? When I was a kid in the early 70s, we would drive here from Michigan and had to stop and clean our windshield all the time. Now you don't need to do that at all. A lot of entomologists count the number of bees and insects that are being lost that way — by what’s on the front of cars.
We're all in a loop here. Everyone depends on somebody else. We depend on mammals for food, we depend on the earth for food, and birds depend on insects for food. There’s a lot that is happening that is pretty scary. There are lots of people who don't understand that we are killing everything.
Now I have some new bees, they’re from Canada and so far they are doing great. I have about a million or so bees, in about 25 hives. They're amazing, they change quickly and they work as an organism. They're fascinating.
Johnson: How do they work as an organism?
O’Hanlon: The queen is in charge. You can open a hive and know whether there is a queen in there. If they're organized and they're busy, there’s a queen. If they are unorganized and listless, there's no queen. She rules the roost— or, the hive. She's larger than the rest and lives for two to six years, which is a really long time for a bee. The rest of them only live for four to six weeks.
Johnson: How long have you been keeping bees and what do you like most about it?
O’Hanlon: It’s been 16 years now. I love providing them with a stable sanctuary. I have them in my orchard, and all the land around me is rural. In fact, [Voices for Biodiversity’s founder] Tara is a neighbor of mine. She's right next door.
I also love opening up the hives, though I don't do it very often — they know what they're doing without me. You try not to bother them much, though I enjoy seeing how organized they are and what they're up to. It’s really a society they have in these hives. It's just amazing.
Johnson: What are your thoughts on how bees influence nature and biodiversity?
O’Hanlon: Bees are part of the natural cycle we all depend on. We depend on so many things in nature, and one of those things is pollinators. Bees are incredible pollinators — that's why there are so many beekeepers, especially with the European honeybee.
We have lots of different wild bees here, but the European honeybee was introduced here because we can’t capture the wild bees’ honey. Most of the wild ones are tiny bumblebees — some are just the size of an ant. But we're definitely losing biodiversity, even though there are still about three to five hundred different types of wild bees in New Mexico.
Johnson: Is beekeeping in New Mexico different than in other parts of the country?
O’Hanlon: Probably not. Bee society is pretty much the queen telling everyone what to do — they all have their different jobs, right until the day they die. European honeybees are the same. There are different genetics and different kinds will look slightly different, with different colors, for example.
Bees just have to find nectar and, if they don’t, you have to feed them — something I try not to do very much. I don't use chemicals with my bees. Some beekeepers use antibiotics three times a year and miticide pretty much the whole year. That makes most commercial honey — and lots of other honey — tainted with chemicals. As an alternative, I added some reishi [mushroom] extract to my bees’ food this summer to build up their immune systems, so hopefully they won’t get attacked or overwhelmed by mites.
Johnson: What can people do to help save bees?
O’Hanlon: People can vote with their money and their choices. That's the way you vote these days — with your dollar. We all have to do that. And people need to start growing their own food. It’s so much fun walking outside and getting your salad!
People need to stop supporting the chemical companies and start eating organic food. That will change how farmers farm.
Don’t use Roundup. Plant wildflowers or at least a variety of flowers. The forage for the bees is disappearing. That’s what their food is called, forage, and of course it’s really, really important to all insects. If you visit the Xerces Society website, there’s a map of the US and they tell you which plants are good for bees in your region. There’s a link to it on my website, too.
In the fall, people should stop mowing and clearing everything, they should be leaving piles of brush and leaves around so insects can lay their eggs and hatch from them in the spring.
Johnson: Tell me more about your business, TaosBee.com
O’Hanlon: I like to use propolis [a compound produced by bees], it's simply amazing. I use my honey as a cleanser, and propolis in oil as a facial oil and as a toner. The healing balm has royal jelly, pollen, propolis, honeybee wax and organic sunflower seed oil in it. I also have a body moisturizer, a few other soaps and a bar shampoo. And I sell wildflower seeds as well. You can buy all of the products I make on my website. Your skin will love it— it’s great for any skin type or condition. Sensitive skin, eczema, you name it —it will make your skin look and feel better.