Organic Beekeeping

It can be difficult to find information on organic beekeeping in general, and in Mexico especially. While the things I’ve learned probably fit better in an expandable web of Venn diagrams and nested flow charts, I’ll try to summarize the basics here. A disclaimer: I’m still learning. I’ll present the story as I understand it, but the fact is there are several pieces I don’t understand, I’ll try to update this update as I go, but please forgive any errors I might make.

First of all, as many of you know, our bees in the U.S. and Europe are in pretty bad shape (see Bee Problems page). This “bee crisis” results from multiple interacting causes, most of which can be traced to industrial agriculture. Unfortunately, in the U.S. our food system is not pollinator-friendly. Monocrop agriculture, migratory beekeeping, and heavy use of pesticides, result in bees so weak and diseased they can hardly survive on their own anymore. In fact, nationally 30% of our bee colonies die every year, and wild colonies of European honey bees have been “virtually eliminated” in most parts of the country.

Mexico is a different situation. Especially in the south, the agriculture here is smaller-scale and lower-impact. Take for example the practice of cultivating milpa, a family plot where corn, squash, beans, and other crops grow in a healthy mix. Traditional farming practices mean fewer pesticides and a higher diversity of plants to provide food for the bees.

The bees here are also Africanized; they’re a hybrid of the European honey bees that came over with the colonists hundreds of years ago and the African honey bees that were introduced to Brazil in 1956. The African honey bees were brought over as part of a science experiment. It was thought that, having evolved in tropical parts of Africa, these bees would be well-adapted to Brazilian climates and would therefore produce more honey. It turns out that the African bees were so well-adapted to South American environments that when they escaped, they quickly established throughout the continent, spread north through Central America, and arrived in Mexico in 1986. The spread of the Africanized bee through the Americas has been one of the greatest bioinvasions of all time (Dr. Malcom Stanford outlines the full story here).

At first this was a big problem because the Africanized hybrid is a more aggressive bee. Especially in the early years after it established, these bees stung many people and animals to death, earning a reputation as a killer bee. However, after years of careful control, Africanized bees are turning out to be not just manageable, but also more resistant to diseases. They are a heartier, healthier bee. So in the south of Mexico, our lower-impact agriculture and our healthy Africanized honey bees create a high potential for organic beekeeping (so much so that San Cristóbal hosted the Second World Conference on Organic beekeeping in 2012).

Like other organic systems, organic beekeeping involves low-input management. For example, it requires beekeepers to feed their bees honey instead of sugar water, source all their materials (boxes, wax) organically, and it regulates the ways in which beekeepers can treat bee diseases. Transitioning to organic beekeeping is a 1-2 year process, and requires a certain amount of training and resources.

This is where El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Ecosur) comes in. Among other bee projects, The Bee Team at Ecosur offers an annual two-week organic beekeeping course for people throughout Mexico and Central America. Our ‘Diplomado’ includes lectures, field trips, and guest speakers from certifying agencies. It deals with a variety of themes, from how to manage bees organically to pollen analysis, the honey market, and the rising threat of GMOs to the beekeeping industry. Recognizing that most beekeepers enter the organic market to fetch a better price for their honey, not necessarily to protect the environment, this course aims to promote social and environmental stewardship while providing beekeepers with the tools to produce organically if they so wish.

The Diplomado en Apicultura Orgánica has been going on for 11 years now and has served over 250 participants from 8 different countries, but the Bee Team at Ecosur has never had the time nor the resources to follow up with the participants; to check-in and ask what their experience has been with the organic transition, and to learn what we can do to as a research team to better support the beekeepers in their efforts.

That’s what my project is for. I am currently working with the Bee Team to compile a brief history of the organic beekeeping course that we offer, collecting statistics to understand its impact, and conducting field visits and interviews with the beekeepers that have attended the course. In the end, I will produce a report on the beekeepers’ experiences in organics with recommendations for course improvements. The idea is that this evaluation will provide valuable feedback to the researchers at Ecosur, it will benefit those who take the course in the future, and it helps me to understand what organics means in beekeeping, how it differs from sustainability, how it’s not a perfect system, but it often has a positive impact.

This is where I am right now: I’ve just returned from center of the country, where I completed my 7th of who knows how many field visits/interviews. I’ll spend the next week processing the information I’ve gathered, then prepare for the next round of field trips: throughout Chiapas, in Oaxaca, and on the Yucatan peninsula.

I don’t have formal results to share as of yet, just some preliminary findings: I am constantly impressed by the warmth and generosity of the people I’ve met here, the beekeepers especially (p < 0.05). Thanks to all of them for including me in their communities, and thanks to all of you for sending encouragement my way.

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