Innovating in beekeeping makes humanity better in times of climate change

Innovating in beekeeping makes humanity better in times of climate change

René Mendoza V., Edgar Fernández and Yeris Lanzas


“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then humanity would only have four years of life left”

Albert Einstein

 Recently there has been a worldwide alarm about bees. They produce honey and pollinate crops and vegetation; their reduction would affect agriculture and biodiversity. Here we ponder their impact on agriculture, review their evolution, and based on an experience in the municipality of San Juan del Río Coco (Madriz, Nicaragua) we suggest innovating in a beekeeping connected to its economic, ecological, agrarian and social surroundings.

A study of Klein and his colleagues (“Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops”), with FAOSTAT-2005 data, found that out of 115 crops, 87 increase their production with pollination (39 of 57 crops and 48 of 67 products derived from crops); 20% of total production is by crops that increase the production of seed with animal pollination. They confirm the effect on production in 92 of 108 crops: without pollination in 13 crops (atemoya or custard apple, Brazil nut, cantelope, cacao, kiwi, macadamian nuts, passion fruit, papaya, rowanberry, sapote, pumpkin, vanilla and watermelon) production drops by 90% or more, in 30 crops it drops from 40-90%, and in 27 it drops from 10-40%, and in 21 crops it drops by less than 10%. For Central America, Roubik (2002, “The value of bees to the coffee harvest”) writing on Arabica coffee in Panama, concludes that the pollination of non-native bees increases its production by up to 50%. From this we see that if the pollination services decline, our diet will become nutritionally and culturally impoverished.

Bees are important, but are they being reduced in number? In England the Bumblebee Conservation Fund states that 2 species of bees have become extinct in the last 70 years, and that 6 are in danger of extinction; in the United States the Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that they have been reduced from 6 million in 1940 and 1950 to 2.5 million in 1990. Nevertheless, the United Nations Development Program (2010) states that the data on the worldwide level on their reduction is not conclusive; Aizen (2009, “The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination”) states that in the last 50 years the amount of beehives has increased close to 45%, while the growth in crops has been 400% in that same period (Manzano, 2014, “Beeodiversidad”). The alarm finds meaning in the growing deforestation and agricultural intensification – mechanized and dependent on chemical inputs; from there comes the reduction of bees in Europe and the United States so far, the “death” of bees in zones of intensive agriculture in Latin America, and the “migration” of bees in extensive agriculture zones because of drought (no flowers) or rainy season (flowers unsuitable for bees). The more deforestation happens and intensive agriculture is promoted, the less bees there are, the less pollination there is, the more agriculture stagnates.

Beekeeping needs to increase. Its innovations began when the human being perceived that (s)he can harvest honey and wax regularly from the same colony, and built hives with clay vessels and conical baskets (5000AC). In the XVI century Francois Huber innovated the mobile frames, Lorenzo Lorrain Langstroth the standardized use beehive (1851), the carpenter Juan Mehring an apparatus for stamping wax (1857), Franceso de Hruschka the extractor or centrifuge for removing the honey from the honeycomb without breaking it (1865), Abbé Collin perfected the queen excluder (1865), the farmer George Layens the horizontal beehive appropriate for transhumance (seasonal migration, 1874). Correspondingly worldwide production of honey grew from 678,759 tones in 1961 to 1,592,701 in 2012, the year in which all the countries of Central America provided 0.46% of world production. Nicaragua went from 20 tons in 1961 to 100 in 1979, to 200 in 1995, to 300 in 1996, and to 400 since 2000. According to CETREX in the period from 2007-13 Nicaragua exported an average of 211 Metric Tons/year.

In 50 years of beekeeping Nicaragua, according to data from the 2006 National Beekeeping Census, has 733 beekeepers and 24,903 hives. Beekeeping in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco illustrates something about what is happening in the country and in the world; between 1963 and 2014 investments have been made of over 3,000 beehives in more than 300 beekeepers, but the Census shows that there are 85 beekeepers with 619 beehives. What is happening? In the decade between 1960-70 beekeeping emerged as an initiative of the large estate owners and with technical assistance from the state, under the logic of pollinating coffee  and extracting honey; the hives lasted more than 10 years, and transhumance was not practiced because there was a forest, in the rainy season they would complement the forest flowers with blocks of sugar and they did not regulate the shade of the trees close to the beehives. In the decade of the 1980s the initiative came from the CORCASAN cooperative with farmers seeking to extract honey and pollinate, the hives lasted up to 5 years, they did not practice transhumance and they would give sugar to the bees during the rainy season. Since 2002 the initiative has been coming from international aid and from the market, they seek to extract honey and in isolated cases pollinate, the rotation of hives is almost annual, they do transhumance in the rainy season because there are no suitable flowers, they provide sugar to the bees and are not investing in the flower supply.

This stagnation in beekeeping is due to a vision where the context in which the innovations emerged is ignored, in a Europe that went through the Renaissance, a humanity that sought to control bees in an environment of flowers, and from there, the innovations focused on the biology of the bees and the physical conditions that made them more productive. Current beekeeping is based on the belief that its greatest challenge is “physical work” of receiving-providing resources, technologies and trainings from outside, and on that “everything has already been invented.” It is an economic vision that is dependent on the bees and separates them from their agrarian, ecological and social surroundings.

beekeeping graphic

In the face of this reality, from one experience in SanJuan del Río Coco, we are suggesting innovating with a holistic visionrecognizing and managing the tension inherent in the connections between bees, beekeeping and biodiversity, and between the improvement of the common good and individual appropriation, disputes that are transforming the territories with flowers, crops, bees and organized families (See Diagram). In this vision, technology, credit and commerce respond to the connections in tension; thus, productivity is not “getting more hives and mechanizing them”, but investing in the connections that result in honey, wax, propolis, coffee, cacao, passion fruit, air, water, land…Part of this process is the crop rotation providing flowers at different times of the year, “sharecropping” between large producers that need to pollinate their plantations and small beekeepers, pollination services, flower inventory as a collective good, and cooperatives facilitating these connections. Seen in this way, beekeeping breaks out of the shell of its “little box” and re-emerges from the connections.

If this innovation in process has the potential of responding to the 50 years of stagnated beekeeping and agricultural productivity, how can we improve it and replicate it in the wet tropics of the country and in Latin America?

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of the IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Edgar i a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation. Yeris is a beekeeper and innovator in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco.

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