Joran Viers has been practicing for three years—which he says makes him a beekeeping "neophyte." But after an early frost in Albuquerque last October, he immediately got the feeling that something was wrong with his hive. Peering in on his bees, he found their frozen bodies scattered around.    

"They died right off the bat," Viers says. This past winter was particularly hard on backyard beekeepers around New Mexico, especially in Albuquerque. Viers is program director at the Bernalillo County Extension Office, where the Albuquerque Beekeepers host their monthly meet-ups. While the county doesn't track regular statistics, he estimates that 70 percent of hives in the county were lost, possibly more.

"[The winter] was heavy," he says. "A lot of experienced beekeepers—some of them lost all their hives."

While beekeepers nationwide investigate the role of pesticides and temperature changes in the continuing decline of bees, pollinators in New Mexico face an additional challenge: drought.

"There have been losses, probably due to the ongoing drought and poor forage conditions," Kate Whealen, the head of the Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers in Santa Fe, tells SFR while plucking bees from her birdbath. "They need quite a bit of food."

But all is not lost—at least, not yet.

"If you're not going to keep bees," Whealen says, "you can certainly help."

The Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers posts a list of drought-resistant plants on their Yahoo message board for people and organizations interested in pitching in. Whether many hives owe last winter's hit to their populations to pesticides, changing temperatures, drought or a combination of all three, for Whealen, it's essential to study these challenges because they may soon become our own.

Bees, she says, "are really the canary in the mineshaft."