Organic honey is a sweet success for Cuba as other bee populations suffer

When the Caribbean state was no longer able to afford pesticides – which have been linked with declining bee populations – it made a virtue out of a necessity

 

Long known for its cigars and rum, Cuba has added organic honey to its list of key agricultural exports, creating a buzz among farmers as pesticide use has been linked to declining bee populations elsewhere.

Organic honey has become Cuba’s fourth most valuable agricultural export behind fish products, tobacco and drinks, but ahead of the Caribbean island’s more famous sugar and coffee, said Theodor Friedrich, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) representative for Cuba.

“All of [Cuba’s] honey can be certified as organic,” Friedrich told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Its honey has a very specific, typical taste; in monetary value, it’s a high-ranking product.“

After the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, the island was unable to afford pesticides due to a lack of foreign currency, coupled with the US trade embargo. By necessity, the government embraced organic agriculture, and the policies have largely stuck.

Now that the United States is easing its embargo following the restoration of diplomatic ties last year, Cuba’s organic honey exporters could see significant growth if the government supports the industry, bee keepers said.

Cuba produced more than 7,200 tonnes of organic honey in 2014, worth about $23.3m, according to government statistics cited by the FAO.

The country’s industry is still tiny compared with honey heavyweights such as China, Turkey and Argentina. But with a commodity worth more per litre than oil, Cuban honey producers believe they could be on the verge of a lucrative era.

With 80 boxes swarming with bees, each producing 45kg (100lb) of honey a year, farm manager Javier Alfonso believes Cuba’s exports could grow markedly in the coming years.

His apiary, down a dirt track in San Antonio de los Baños, a farming town an hour’s drive from the capital, Havana, was built from scratch by employees, Alfonso said.

“There is just a bit of production now, but it can get bigger,” he said, looking at the rows of colourful wooden boxes.

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Like other Cuban bee farmers, he sells honey exclusively to the government, which pays him according to the world market price and then takes responsibility for marketing the product overseas.

Most of Cuba’s honey exports go to Europe, he said. He would like to be able to borrow money to expand production, but getting credit is difficult, he said, so for now his team of farmers build their own infrastructure for the bees.

“It’s a very natural environment here,” said Raul Vásquez, a farm employee. “The government is not allowed to sell us chemicals – this could be the reason why the bees aren’t dying here” as they have been in other places.

While Cuba’s small, organic honey industry aims to reap the rewards of increased trade with the United States, honey producers in other regions are under threat, industry officials said.

Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.

The US Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.

“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honeybees [in the United States and Europe] have declined … since the second world war,” Norman Carreck, science director of the UK-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.

Because it is pesticide-free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.

“The overall use of pesticides is fairly controlled, he said. “Cuba has been immune to the bee die-offs [hitting other regions].”

 

Asian Hornet Update

Following the finding of Asian hornets in Gloucestershire last week we have received a large number of suspect Asian hornet reports from members of the public and beekeepers which we are following up. Bee inspectors have now visited over 100 sites. Asian hornets have been seen at just six locations within 500 meters of the original site.

Efforts to track down the nest and destroy it are ongoing. There have been no other substantiated reports of hornets anywhere else in the UK so please be patient while we continue our field work and be assured that when appropriate, national alerts will be sent out via our email alert system. In the meantime, our news feed on BeeBase will be used to keep everyone updated.

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Do you know how honey is produced by the bees

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If you don’t know how do bees produce honey until now after reading of this text you will know very well the whole process…

The western, or European honeybee, pollinates three fourths of the fruits, veggies and nuts that we eat. We’d be in trouble without them. Of course, there’s a reason we don’t call them zucchini bees, almond bees, or apple bees. They also give us honey. One healthy hive will make and consume more than 50 kg of honey in a single year, and that takes a lot of work.

Honey is made from nectar, but it doesn’t come out of flowers as that golden, sticky stuff. After finding a suitable food source, bees dive in head first, using their long, specially adapted tongues to slurp tiny sips of nectar into one of two stomachs. A single bee might have to drink from more than a thousand flowers to fill its honey stomach, which can weigh as much as the bee itself when full of nectar. On the way back to the hive, digestive enzymes are already working to turn that nectar into sweet gold. When she returns to the hive, the forager bee will vomit the nectar into the mouth of another worker. That bee will vomit it into another bee’s mouth, and so on.

honey-producing

This game of regurgitation telephone is an important part of the honey making process, since each bee adds more digestive enzymes to turn long chains of complex sugars in the raw nectar into simple monosaccharides like fructose and glucose. At this point, the nectar is still pretty watery, so the bees beat their wings and create an air current inside the hive to evaporate and thicken the nectar, finally capping the cell with beeswax so the enzyme rich bee barf can complete its transformation into honey. Because of its low water content and acidic pH, honey isn’t a very inciting place for bacteria or yeast spoilage, and it has an incredibly long shelf life in the hive or in your pantry. Honey has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back thousands of years, pretty much unspoiled.

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For one pound of honey, tens of thousands of foraging bees will together fly more than three times around the world and visit up to 8 million flowers. That takes teamwork and organization, and although they can’t talk they do communicate… with body language. Foragers dance to tell other bees where to find food. A circle dance means flowers are pretty close to the hive, but for food that’s farther away, they get their waggle on. The waggle dance of the honey bee was first decoded by Karl Von Frisch, and it’s definitely one of the coolest examples of animal communication in nature. First the bee walks in a straight line, wagging its body back and forth and vibrating its wings, before repeating in a figure eight. Whatever angle the bee walks while waggling tells the other bees what direction to go. Straight up the line of honeycombs, then the food is in the direction of the sun. If the dance is pointed to the left or right, the other bees know to fly in that angle relative to the sun. The longer the waggle, the farther away the food is, and the food is better, the more excited the bee shakes its body.

bees-producing-honey

If that’s not amazing enough, even if they can’t see the sun itself, they can infer where it is and the time of day by reading the polarization of light in the blue sky. A single bee is a pretty simple creature, but together they create highly complex and social societies. There’s three main classes in a beehive: drones, workers and queens. When a new queen is born, she immediately runs around and kills her sisters, because there can be only one. During mating season, she’ll fly to a distant hive to mate with several males and store away the sperm, which she’ll use back at her home hive to lay more than a thousand eggs a day throughout the rest of her life. Any unfertilized eggs, those that don’t join up with sperm, will mature into male drones, which means they only have one set of chromosomes. But fertilized eggs are all genetically female, destined t become either queens or workers. Queens do the egg laying of course, but worker bees are the backbone of the beehive.

So what makes most females become workers, while just one wears the hive crown? A baby bee’s diet activate genetic programming that shifts its entire destiny. Every bee larva is initially fed a nutrient rich food called royal jelly, but after a few days, worker bee babies are switched to a mixture of pollen and honey called “bee bread”. But queens eat royal jelly their whole life, even as adults. Scientists used to think it was just royal jelly that put queens on the throne, but just last year they discovered one chemical in bee bread, the food that queens don’t get, that keeps worker bees sterile. Being a queen seems to be as much about what bees don’t eat as what they do. Making honey is insect farming on its grandest scale, with intricate societies cooperating to make a food fit for bear tummies bid and small… with the pleasant side effect of pollinating most of the world’s flowering plants.

 

Bees don’t slack on the job, even when they are ill

Scientists think the insects are ‘hardwired’ to search, no matter how they feel.

wired-bee

Struggle to get into work when you feel under the weather? You should take inspiration from the hard-working honeybee and spring out of bed.

New research has shown that honeybees remain excellent searchers even when they are ill.

The bees are hardwired to search the landscape efficiently, allowing them to continue working for the greater good of their hives.

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Scientists in Cornwall used radar technology to track individual bees and were able to show they remained nimble and travelled hundreds or thousands of metres even when they had infections or viruses.

Honeybees tirelessly commute between rewarding flower patches and their hive and their remarkable navigational skills rely on distinct landmarks, such as trees or houses, which they very efficiently find and memorise on orientation flights.

Experts fitted a transponder – a tiny dipole aerial much lighter than the nectar or pollen normally carried by the bee – to the thorax.

Tracking each bee individually allowed them to pick up a radar signal from the transponder showing where and how it was flying. The aerial is harmless to the bee and removable.

bees-dont-slack-on-the-job-even-when-they-are-ill

Bees, like humans, can fall ill and getting around during periods of sickness can become very challenging.

The study shows that even very sick bees are still able to search their surroundings optimally in so-called Levy flight patterns.

Lead author Dr Stephan Wolf, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “The honeybees we observed had remarkably robust searching abilities, which indicate this might be hardwired in the bees rather than learned, making bees strong enough to withstand pathogens and possibly other stressors, and allowing them to still contribute to their colony by, for example, foraging for food.”

During the study the team monitored 78 bees, some of which were unwell.

The researchers discovered that the unhealthy bees did not fly as far or for as long as the healthy bees but they continued to search in the same manner, suggesting that the pattern was inbuilt.

Honeybees know it’s going to rain, so work more before it starts

Honeybees know it’s going to rain, so work more before it starts

bees and rain

Busy bees get busier if the next day looks rainy.

This is according to Xu-Jiang He and colleagues at Jiangxi Agricultural University in Nanchang, China, who attached tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to 300 worker honeybees from each of three hives.

They used these to monitor when the bees left the hive, how long they were gone and when they quit work in the evening.
The bees spent more time out of the hive foraging and stopped work later in the afternoon when the following day proved to be rainy rather than sunny. They seemed to be responding to cues such as changes in humidity, temperature and barometric pressure that preceded rainstorms.

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Stores for hoarders?
The finding is surprising because honeybees should not need to set aside extra stores of food for a rainy day, says Gene Robinson, a honeybee expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Honeybee foraging ecology is not based on immediate need. They are a hoarding species,” he says.

Robinson notes that He’s team only tracked the bees for 34 days, so other factors such as blooming times of flowers could also have affected their behaviour.

If the Chinese researchers are correct, though, their discovery will help shape our understanding of how and why honeybees forage when they do, says Robinson.

And that, in turn, may help in managing the impact of climate change and human activity on bees, which are the world’s most important pollinating insects.

 

What we can learn from the ancient Egyptian practice of beekeeping

Egyptian-bees

“The god Re wept, and the tears from his eyes fell on the ground and turned into a bee. The bee made his honeycomb and busied himself with the flowers of every plant and so wax was made and also honey out of the tears of Re.”

What we can learn from the ancient Egyptian practice of beekeeping

This inscription from an ancient Egyptian papyrus inspired the title of a new book, The Tears of Re, a historical look at beekeeping in ancient Egyptian culture by Professor Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St Joseph’s University.

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Adopt A Hive

“Bees were considered sacred because they were a gift from Re,” Kritsky says. “They were made from his tears, and that gave bees a valuable aspect, not just because of what they contributed and brought to Egyptian society, but also because they were theologically important.”

‘Re’ is the name modern scholars now use for the sun god that was once called ‘Ra.’

The oldest honeybee hieroglyph goes back to just before 3000 BCE, Kritsky says. “It was a very ancient symbol in the Egyptian writings. But even in the Old Kingdom (2600-2160 BCE), beekeeping was an important activity organized by the state.”

Beekeeping-Egypt

Egyptians used honey as a sweetener in their cuisine and it was also used as a medicine.

“They would use honey for cuts and burns,” Kritsky says. “Of the 900 or so prescriptions I found in the various medical papyri, close to 500 of them included honey as one of the ingredients. … They used honey as a way of making the medicine taste a little sweeter, but honey also has antibacterial properties, which probably added medicinal value to the concoctions.”

Scholars also confirm honey’s centrality to Egyptian society by measuring its worth relative to other objects and commodities. Only the higher classes and parts of the royal court would have enjoyed honey, Kritsky says, which clearly tells us something. Honey was also used as a kind of tribute from the various provinces to the Pharaoh.

“A number of papyri talk about the rations given to workers,” Kritsky explains. “We know that people who, for example, worked directly with the Pharaoh would receive an allotment of honey daily, but the laborers did not.”

Ancient Egyptian bee hives were different from the kind of hives used by beekeepers today.

“They certainly were quite amazing,” Kritsky says. “They were horizontal tube hives made out of mud that was dried into large cylinders, which were stacked on top of each other — very similar to the construction of the hives we still see used in Azerbaijan and Iran, for example.”

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Tomb paintings show beekeepers removing round honeycomb from the horizontal hives. The honeycomb was crushed and then placed into containers.

“So, of course, I had to do this,” Kritsky says. “I took honeycomb and I crushed it, and I put it in a container in the hot sun and the beeswax floated to the top and the honey stayed below the beeswax.”

Another relief shows beekeepers holding a vessel with a spout coming from the middle or towards the bottom, Kritsky says — much like a fat separator used for making gravy. “That may be one way they could have decanted a lot of the honey without getting a lot of the wax mixed in with it,” he explains.

In one of the oldest tomb paintings, from 2450 BCE, a beekeeper is holding something to his face, right up against the opening of the hive.

“The hieroglyph above it means “to weaken” or “to slacken” or “to emit a sound,” Kritsky says. “That’s been interpreted as smoking bees, which is a way of quieting bees, or maybe calling to the bees.”

In fact, scholars believe a traditional Egyptian beekeeper practice involved ‘calling’ the queen — making a sound to see if the queen bee would respond. “That would tell them if there was a queen ready to emerge or the status inside the hive,” Kritsky explains. “If that was the case, then their beekeeping was much more sophisticated than we can appreciate.”

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Egyptians had various uses for beeswax, too. Beeswax was used in cosmetics, as well as in paintings, and even in some embalming practices.

Beeswax was also important as a “wonderful, magical substance,” Kritsky says. “Beeswax burns with a very bright light and doesn’t leave any ash. Moreover, if you put beeswax in the hot Egyptian sun, it will start to change. It will get a little molten, a little liquid-y. All of this tied in with their solar theology and would have been important to the Egyptians.”

As a beekeeper himself, Kritsky feels a strong kinship with these ancient Egyptian beekeepers. “It’s a very ancient occupation, because it goes back to ancient Egypt obviously,” he says, “but there’s a kinship between us — humans and bees — that I find very alluring.”

Argentine Ants Carry Virus Deadly to Honeybees

The Argentine ant, already known as one of the world’s most widespread and damaging pests, may be infecting honeybees with a deadly virus, a new study finds.

Alexandra Sebastien, a biologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, Argentine antsanalyzed Argentine ant populations in New Zealand, Australia and Argentina as part of her doctoral research.

She and her colleagues found that ants from all three locations can carry the deformed wing virus, a pathogen linked to colony collapse in honeybees. The new study appears in the current issue of the journal Biology Letters.

Argentine ants have flexible diets that allow them to thrive in many climates and on multiple continents. They eat other ants and insects, but also prey on larger animals like skinks and geckos.

“These ants, when they establish in an area, they become very widespread and they forage in the same places as bees,” said Phil Lester, a biologist at Victoria University of Wellington and a co-author of the new study.

The researchers also discovered that some Argentine ants carry a second virus that could be useful in controlling the ants. “It could save us from utilizing large amounts of pesticides,” Dr. Lester said.

Adopt modern techniques, local bee farmers urged

Ugandan bee farmers have been urged to seek advice from entomology officers in their districts to help them in the bee-keeping projects.

HONEYbee

Entomology involves the studying insects scientifically.

The call was made by an agriculture ministry official during the launch of the directorate of agricultural extension services at the ministry of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries in Entebbe.

Vincent Rubarema, who is the permanent secretary at the institution, also said that ministry, through the new directorate, was partnering with organizations like The Hive to help in doubling honey production.

In the modern bee-keeping, various equipment like the CAB hive, bee-keepers protective suit, beeswax, hive brand smoker, bee brush, uncapping forks, honey extractor and many others are used to help harvest honey – without killing bees or destroying combs.

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Adopt A Hive

And for that reason, local bee farmers are being encouraged to shift away from the traditional way and adopt more modern techniques of the practice.

During the launch of the new directorate in Entebbe, the above mentioned items were on display.

The new director, Beatrice Byarugaba, said bee farming should cover the whole country if Uganda is to meet the required amount of production.

She said that currently, bee-keeping is booming in areas like West Nile region, Pader, Apac, Lira Mubende and Bushenyi.

Go modern

A while back, news that honey from Uganda had finally been certified for European markets was received with great optimism by local bee farmers.

This would mean doubling the country’s current production of about 500,000 tonnes a year.

Also in many homes across the country, due to health reasons, honey has replaced sugar when it comes to tea time.

Unfortunately, with all such market opportunities, reports from the ministry indicate that the production for honey is still very low. One of the chief factors for this is farmers sticking to tradition ways of bee-keeping instead of using modern bee farming equipment.

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Christopher Nzuki, the chief executive of The Hive explains that a single CAB hive produces around nine to 13kg of honey per harvest compared to the tradition one which gives very little while at the same time destroys the colonies.

He adds that with the modern equipment, harvest can be done six times in a year.

“Traditional bee-keeping is wasteful and injures bees while  the modern harvesting  leaves enough honey for bees, and comb frames are put back for refill after honey is extracted,” explains Nzuki.

He advises bee-keepers to increase their production, citing the high demand for not only honey but also its byproducts – which he reveals are even more expensive than honey. They include pollen used in the improvement of malnutrition, wax required in many industries for making soap, candles and many other things.

Others are royal jerry which improves fertility and boosts immunity while also delaying the ageing of cells, while honey is sought by many for various health reasons.

The Hive, an organization promoting bee-keeping, so far has branches in 12 countries around Africa including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and more.

Meanwhile, Kelvin Odoobo, the managing director for The Hive, believes bee farming can also help farmers in bringing more life to their farms.

“For some time in my area around Busia, farmers were complaining of their Mango (commonly known as Doodo) not producing fruits. When I started a bee-keeping project recently, the harvest was overwhelming because of the bees and Mango farmers got cash in their pockets!”

He pointed out that bees are responsible for the pollination of about 80% of the crops that give us food.

www.adoptahive.co

 

Royal Mail bee stamps

bee stamps

We think these new Royal Mail bee stamps are brilliant!

Since May 2014, the British Beekeepers Association (the organisation behind Friends of the Honey Bee) has been working with the Royal Mail to produce a new range of stamps featuring bees and their lifestyle.

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Adopt A Hive

They go on sale on August 18th, so keep a look out for them (and if sending us any post, remember to use your bee stamps!).

 

Rare bee causes a buzz at reserve

Rare bee causes a buzz at reserve

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Visitors to Norfolk and Cambridgeshire can see Ruderal bumblebees on the reserve at WWT Welney Wetland Centre this summer – a species which is scarce in the UK.

The bees are visiting the wildflowers on the reserve collecting nectar. At the same time, they are playing a vital role by pollinating the plants. Some members of this species lack the distinctive striping that is normally associated with these insects.

Only three populations of this species were found in Norfolk between 2001-2011. Many bumblebee species have seen a worrying decline in numbers due to threats including changes to modern land uses and farming practices.

‘Ruderal bumblebees have a particularly long tongue, and so feed on flowers such as comfrey, yellow iris and marsh woundwort. They are also well adapted to feeding from red clover, teasel and thistles. ‘The wetlands we manage provide the plants these insects need to exist. You don’t have to look far; the swathes of wildflowers beside the footpaths are a favourite spot for the bees and many other pollinating insects’.

– ASSISTANT WARDEN, JOSHUA WELLS
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Wardens say ruderal bumblebees will be out on the reserve for a few more weeks before the queens start to think about hibernating.

 

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