Queen of the Hive: Melanie Kirby (SF97)

January 23, 2024 | By Jennifer Levin

Bees have taken Melanie Kirby (SF97) around the world. She’s worked in such far-flung locales as Paraguay, Morocco, and Italy—but in 2005, the apiarist came home to New Mexico.

Melanie Kirby (SF97)

Kirby is a member of Tortugas Pueblo, located near Las Cruces, where she grew up. After graduating from St. John’s College, she discovered her life’s work while in the Peace Corps. Today, she lives in Santa Fe and runs a beekeeping operation off the High Road to Taos, in the tiny community of Vadito. She’s co-proprietor of Zia Queenbees, a landless farm that provides local, national, and international customers with queen bees, starter nucleus hives, and pollination services.

“There isn’t a lot of large-scale bee production in New Mexico. We’re limited in water, and the weather can be extreme,” Kirby says. “We focus on breeding a naturally resilient and enduring strain of honeybees that can be shared regionally. We’re trying to help New Mexico become its own sustainable resource.”

Since 2020, Kirby has worked as the extension educator and pollinator specialist at the Land-Grant Programs’ Agricultural Extension Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Although the residential neighborhood surrounding IAIA forbids large animals like cattle or horses, “we can have bees, which many are not aware are livestock,” says Kirby. “Our main program, Indigenous Youth Agriculture, is basically a junior master gardener’s program, but we’ve made it more culturally relevant over the last few years. We started a tribal beekeeping and pollinator stewardship program.”

Kirby manages the IAIA Thunderbees apiaries, both on campus and in neighboring tribal communities. She also writes grants to support various programs, including community collaborations and outreach. “Our student assistants accompany us to check on our hives at Taos, Cochiti, and Santa Clara pueblos,” she says. “We just got a Southwest Climate Adaptation Center Grant to run online classes for tribal environmental professionals. A big USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture research grant will kick in soon, and we just signed an agreement with the Office of Tribal Relations and the USDA for working on grasslands and pollinators.”

There’s even more big news: In January, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak appointed Kirby to the inaugural Pollinator Subcommittee of the National Agricultural Research, Extension Education, and Economics Advisory Board. “This really means a lot to me professionally,” she says. “It makes me feel that my dedication to learning and sharing to promote respectful stewardship has been validated on a national level.”

How did bees become central to Kirby’s life? She didn’t grow up fascinated by the industrious insects and had planned on moving to San Francisco after college to become a DJ; “I was really into the rave scene,” she recalls. But first, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and enlisted in the Peace Corps. “She always said it was the best experience of her life,” Kirby says, “and I wanted to have the best experience of my life. I started planning for the Peace Corps when I was in about fourth grade.”

When she found out she would be serving as a beekeeper in Paraguay through the Peace Corps, she laughed because it seemed so random—and not just because she “had never even really considered where honey came from.” Then she remembered the application question that had unknowingly cemented her fate: “I was asked whether I minded working with stinging insects. I said I didn’t mind. Come to find out, many people check yes. So, the few that don’t become beekeepers.”

Kirby didn’t anticipate how engrossing she would find working with bees, let alone that they would become her career path. Ever the Johnnie, she soon realized that “beekeeping isn’t just about bees. You learn about the weather, the plant index, agriculture, ecology, community development, biology. Every season’s different. Every hive has a different personality.”

“I credit St. John’s with my approach,” she adds. “I came out of college feeling like if I have an interest in something, if I’m curious, then I can learn about it. And I could be a student of bees for life.”

Kirby worked in Hawaii for five years after the Peace Corps, where she learned about rearing and bee genetics. Her main sources of wisdom were the international beekeepers from colder climates working in Hawaii during their off-season. She followed their example, spending more than a dozen years developing her skills in Nicaragua, Chile, Mexico, Canada, Ukraine, France, and Spain. She met her farm partner, Mark Spitzig, while working for a migratory beekeeper in Florida, and convinced the Michigander to move to her home state. They brought 50 hives to Las Cruces and placed them on family friends’ private properties. “As landless farmers,” she says, “we put bees wherever people will take them, wherever they’re needed.”

Kirby knew bees would fare better in the northern part of New Mexico, where there’s more water, so she came up to Santa Fe and turned to a familiar and supportive community: “I put a notice on the bulletin board across from the switchboard at St. John’s that said, ‘Alum looking for space to host bee hives.’”

A Graduate Institute student offered his property in Santa Fe—a connection that led to space in an apple orchard in Velarde, where she and Spitzig ended up renting a casita. Now they’re celebrating 20 years operating Zia Queenbees, still placing hives in orchards and on farms throughout the region. “My inspiration for creatively accessing land is to work in community,” Kirby says.

Even after more than two decades in the business, Kirby is still a student of it. In 2017, she earned her master’s in entomology from Washington State University. In 2020, she secured a National Geographic research fellowship to Spain, where she planned on researching the mating behavior of endemic honey bees with radio frequency identification devices. It ended abruptly when COVID-19 hit, sending her back to New Mexico—and leading her to discover the Agricultural Extension Program at IAIA.

“I feel really blessed to be here,” Kirby reflects. “Similar to St. John’s, we get to do interdisciplinary work. I’ve got my science background, but I get to use philosophy and art, develop creative science communication, and work with various cultures.”

Retracing her path from St. John’s to IAIA—two stunning campuses located on opposite ends of the city—she concludes, “I definitely credit St. John’s with being instrumental in helping me develop the confidence to pursue practices of learning. I’m at a point where I want to pay it forward, where I want to develop mentorship opportunities for people like me, who might never have thought of this. It’s all interconnected, which resonates with my own heritage.”