Taking Care of the Bees Is Taking Care of Our Future
In Mexico, honey production sustains many families in small rural communities. Often, a lack of information prevents these beekeepers from producing more and better-quality honey. At the same time, these communities receive little education about the vector-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and malaria that are transmitted by other insects that find perfect habitats in these rural areas. In Puebla, the Ayotoxco community is living this reality.
Bayer, with expertise in both agriculture and public health, is in a unique position to support this community. Together with a group of local women beekeepers, the Bayer team in Mexico is working to increase honey production and help improve the performance of bees in the pollination of community crops such as mango, corn, lychee and, especially, vanilla. Meanwhile, measures to monitor and control insects which transmit diseases throughout the community are being developed, to improve the health of the local human population.
Elías Tapia, responsible for Product Development at Bayer’s Crop Science Division in Mexico, has designed an approach and training protocol to carry out this important project. Elias spoke with Paulina Hidalgo Diego, leader of this indigenous group and who coordinates the work of 200 farmers in the region, about her experience with Bayer, the work done so far, and the impact of good beekeeping and agricultural practices are having so far.
Elías Tapia – The people of Ayotoxco live in close contact with many different types of animals, including insects that can, potentially, be carriers of debilitating and life-threatening disease. What makes being better-informed about the control of vectors and diseases so important and how is the project contributing?
Paulina Hidalgo – We did not have much idea of the risks that some insects pose to human health. Nor did we know that the other animals in the community were hosts to diseases, bacteria and protozoa that these same vector insects then transmit to us. With the actions carried out so far, we have learned very efficient techniques to identify them and prevent their proliferation and, while we are changing some habits, with the support of the Bayer´s experts, we can actively prevent the spread of diseases.
Elías Tapia – How was the plan to keep native bees in the Ayotoxco de Guerrero community born?
Paulina Hidalgo – There was an increase in the vanilla crop yield performance six years ago, and this stimulated the market. So, we started keeping native stingless bees aiming to use them for the pollination of this specific crop. It is a very delicate plant so we need to maximize the potential yield, for instance, by using bees as pollinators.
Elías Tapia – And what is the outcome so far?
Paulina Hidalgo – Since we started keeping native bees we have had many hurdles to cross learning how to handle the insects properly. This for instance led us to pollinate the vanilla crop by-hand, yet this process is very expensive and time consuming. The knowledge that has been shared with us on bee nutrition and proper apiary management (including cleaning, storage, and even identifying low insect activity), together with some of our traditional techniques, has allowed us to visibly improve vanilla cultivation. Nonetheless, it is early days as we have just started the activities, and apparently, these stingless bees are not as efficient at pollinating vanilla, as they are at pollinating other crops such as mango and citrus.
Taking Care of the Bees Is Taking Care of Our Future
Elías Tapia – What other approaches have been put into practice to keep native bees?
Paulina Hidalgo – There are currently eight women in our community who are directly involved in beekeeping. Together, we take care of the vanilla pollination process and of honey production with honey bees. We currently have about 160 apiaries and we want to double that number by 2019. In addition, with support from the native bee specialist, who visits us, we are working on improving the quality of the honey produced to expand our reach to other markets in Mexico.
Elías Tapia – What are the main challenges you face in keeping these insects?
Paulina Hidalgo – Keeping stingless bees is often not an easy task. There are few specific studies and techniques to manage this type of insect, while for European honey bees, for example, there is plenty of information and methods. We are still experiencing native bee malnutrition issues, especially in low flowering periods, in addition to constantly facing apiary invasion by ants. For a long time, the lack of dialogue with nearby farmers has resulted in insect deaths due to the inappropriate use of pesticides. This is one of the main scenarios we want to change, and we are already working on it.
Elías Tapia – Is dialogue with local farmers evolving?
Paulina Hidalgo – For sure. During the visits, we are not only discussing solutions to improve beekeeping, but also holding meetings with local farmers to talk about good farming practices. It is very important to discuss this issue, since proper pesticide use is essential for the success of our work. We have to strengthen the relationship between beekeepers and farmers, and we are making very good progress.
Elías Tapia – In addition to the economic benefits that successful native bee management can bring, why is it so important to continue this activity while educating about the insects that transmit disease?
Paulina Hidalgo – Bees are responsible for pollination of our crops and without them the plants are not nurtured and do not develop as well, compromising food production. With our work, we are improving our sustainability. By educating people about the role they can play in preventing the insects that transmit disease, we can help keep people out of severe poverty – in such rural populations people who cannot work due to illness cannot maintain their land and livestock which on a higher level hinders economic progress and social stability of the whole community.
I am 58 years old, but I can’t afford to forget about future generations. I think that, through educating about bees as pollinators as well as learning about the vectors of disease, we are taking care of our future.