In rural areas of Central America and Mexico, beekeeping can be essential for farmers and communities to generate income, increase food security, and improve livelihoods. In this article, we explore the basics of this important activity.
What is Beekeeping?
Apiculture, or beekeeping, indicates the activity of raising bees and the process behind it.
The Beekeeper and the Hive
Beehives are superorganisms, self-organizing entities where individual organisms live together and interact to benefit the entire colony. The job of beekeepers is to take care of the beehives by breeding honeybees and protecting the queen bee, the only female capable of reproduction and the mother of almost all bees in the colony.
Natural hives are found in trees, fallen logs, or underground. However, since harvesting honey from wild hives is not a sustainable practice (wild hives often have to be destroyed to collect the honey), professional apiarists use human-made hives. The most common ones are wooden boxes with wire screens to help separate the different parts of the hive.
Langstroth hives are the most commonly used. These human-made hives consist of stacking rectangular boxes with removable frames for bees to build comb in. This hive is named after its inventor, Lorenzo Langstroth, and is known for its customizable vertical configuration, which allows beekeepers to stack boxes of various heights to suit their needs.
The hive's floor must have specific dimensions, including a length or depth of 55 centimeters and a width of 42.5 centimeters. The brood chamber holds boxes with brood combs, and the frames must be made of San Juan wood with wires to support the honeycomb.
Overall, the Langstroth hive has revolutionized beekeeping for its mobility and flexibility, allowing beekeepers to manage and extract honey from their hives easily.
As part of their tasks, beekeepers must inspect the apiary routinely and observe the bees' behavior and the hives' entrances to protect the honeybees and prevent them from being harmed by pests.
Essential Beekeeping Protective Gear
Bees aren't vicious animals, but if they feel threatened and think their hive is in danger, they can quickly become aggressive, so beekeepers need to use protective equipment while they work.
Gloves: They are essential equipment that needs to be flexible, durable, and sturdy to protect the beekeeper's hands and skin from bee stings.
Bee suit: A one-piece, sting-proof dress that provides protection from bee stings. The clothing color is generally white, which is a color that doesn't upset the bees -- unlike black, red, or other dark colors.
Beekeeping veil: Used to protect the beekeeper's head and face.
Shoes: They need to be made of hard material and have good soles so bees can't sting beekeepers through them.
Bee smoker: An essential tool beekeepers use to calm bees and facilitate their work in the hive. The smoker is made up of three main parts: the bellow, the nozzle, and the fire chamber. When applied to the hive, smoke triggers a feeding response in bees, making them less likely to become agitated or aggressive. This allows beekeepers to work with the bees while they are less active and less likely to sting.
Feeding the Bees
Beekeepers are also responsible for providing food to honeybees so they don't starve when the pollen supply decreases or the weather is too harsh for bees to leave the hive and look for pollen.
There are two nutrients necessary for the growth of a colony of bees:
Caloric Nutrients: They provide the energy the bees require to carry out vital functions. Bees get them in nature, mainly from the nectar of flowers, some plants' secretions, and certain insects' excretions.
Protein Nutrients: They form the organs and tissues of the bee. Protein nutrients are obtained from pollen.
Pollen provides the best nutrients to bees, as it contains the perfect combination of protein, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates, and it's easily digested. However, when pollen production isn't enough, or the weather isn't good, bees can survive with a pollen substitute, but they won't produce many offspring.
Bees provide many marketable products. Honey, of course, is the most well-known. But there are other equally important products used by people for various nutritional or medicinal purposes:
Pollen: It's the most complete and valuable food of nature. It's a rich source of protein, and its nutritional value is higher than that of meat.
Royal jelly: It's the food of the queen bees. Nurse bees produce it through their hypopharyngeal glands. Royal jelly is used in alternative medicine and is often sold as a dietary supplement.
Apitoxin (venom): It's produced by the honeybee's poison glands. In humans, honeybee venom intensifies blood circulation by dilating the capillaries, improves the nervous system metabolism, and has a bacteriostatic effect.
Beeswax: It's the substance secreted by the wax glands of young workers. Bee wax is used for making candles and as an ingredient in leather and wood polishes. It's also used in cosmetics for the preparation of creams, ointments, and face masks, for instance. The pharmaceutical industry uses it as a binding agent, time-release mechanism, and drug carrier.
Propolis: A reddish-brown resinous substance bees produce from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources. Many use propolis for its antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Another crucial benefit of beekeeping is the role of honeybees in agriculture.
The value of honeybees as pollinators is as great as their value as honey producers, as they help increase yield quantity and quality and guarantee food security and economic return
Honeybees are the most important pollinators of agricultural and horticultural crops. Many fruit and vegetable crops need pollination to be able to grow. The value of honeybees as pollinators is as great as their value as honey producers, as they help increase yield quantity and quality and guarantee food security and economic return, especially for local rural communities.
Sustainable Beekeeping for Community Empowerment: EcoLogic's Approach
EcoLogic promotes sustainable income generation and conservation through beekeeping activities. Empowering local communities with the right skills, knowledge, and resources can create positive change for people and the environment.
Our team conducts workshops in rural communities, covering various topics, including parasite and disease control, management of registries, packaging, and marketing best practices. We also provide constant assistance to community members and farmers to ensure the continuity of the projects.
In addition, we facilitate learning exchanges between communities considering agroforestry and beekeeping activities and communities already engaged in them. This allows local populations to learn from each other and understand the benefits of these activities.
Do you want to learn about our work with local and indigenous communities to incentivize beekeeping activities? Then, visit this page and sign up for our newsletter!