Marnix Doorn

Transforming Honey Bee Health into Meaningful Insights

There is no doubt that bees and other pollinators play an important role in agricultural systems around the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 75% of global agricultural crops for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollination by insects and other animals. Insects are by far the largest group and, of these, bees are the dominant group. Being aware of the importance of protecting these pollinators and the large role honey bees play in Latin American agriculture, the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation developed the “Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America” program, in collaboration with the Bayer Bee Care Center.

The story behind this initiative starts in 2011, when I participated in a project to assess risks and costs for small business. That was when I had my first contact with beekeepers. Until then, the only information I had about honey bees was that they produce honey – and sting! The expansion of this knowledge came after I met Mayda Verde, a Cuban veterinarian, specialized in honey bees. I brought her all the concerns I had collected from the beekeepers and, through talking with her, it became crystal clear to me how honey bees are key to agriculture and crop production.

Actually, honey bee health is a complex issue. Many factors can affect the life of honey bees, such as climate, agronomic practices, genetic factors, pests and diseases and so on. However, there was a need to create a better understanding of the implications that these issues could have for bee health in Latin America, and for that we would need some specific data and statistics, essential to create a scientific basis.

Along with Mayda, we decided to gather that, as yet, unavailable bee health information under the umbrella of Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation, the second largest international subsidiary of the German Fraunhofer Society, one of the largest applied-research organizations in the world. In collaboration with Bayer’s Bee Care Center, we started a project in order to study bee health in central Chile, in 2015.

During the implementation phase, between 2015 and 2016, 60 apiaries were monitored twice a year, evaluating things like hive strength, Varroa infestation and the presence of agricultural and apicultural pesticide residues in the bee bread. The study showed that the crucial issue to address was the lack of structured and effective knowledge dissemination to beekeepers about hive management issues, such as pest prevention versus pest treatment, nutrition, disinfection of materials and quality of bee queens.

marnix doorn
marnix doorn

Marnix Doorn

bee hives
bee hives
With the information gathered from monitoring, training is offered to improve beekeeping skills and encourage good beekeeping practices.

Based on the results of this first study, the “Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America” program was born in 2017, with the purpose of providing tools to improve the honey bee health situation and productivity of honey bee populations in Latin America by the end of 2020, through monitoring, training and collaborative activities. At the same time, proposing strategies to improve the sustainability of beekeeping and create the conditions necessary to achieve the quality, safety and traceability for the honey, demanded by the food market.

Within this process, we realized the importance of delivering the tools and instruments needed to professionalize the health management of honey bees which, in turn, will lead to a stronger agricultural sector. In addition to analyzing several different factors – beekeeping management practices, hive strength, and existing diseases, the project promoted the importance of good agricultural practices as a way of preventing honey bee health issues.

Through training both in-the-field and via classroom lectures, the project is generating awareness of the importance of the symbiosis between these insect pollinators and agricultural food production. So far, the project has trained more than 100 beekeepers and farmers in the four countries where we operate – Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Costa Rica. More than 20 experts including veterinarians and scientists are engaged in the activities related to the project.

A "Beekeeper's Guide" has been created to provide information on good beekeeping management practices to field professionals not directly involved in the program. We have also implemented the "Latam 2020 Network”, aimed at researchers, beekeepers, farmers and social actors. Via this platform participants can share experiences and enable information exchange, for instance, regarding beekeeping and honey bee health management, with the aim to prevent ill health in honey bee colonies.

The biggest challenge we have is to connect all stakeholders in such a way that they can communicate efficiently, without losing the quality or scientific content provided. The greatest achievement, for me, has been to carry out this work program while respecting the local and different cultures of each region, transforming Healthy Hives 2020 into a continental project but with a local, hands-on approach.

Our partnership with Bayer is contributing, to gradually change what we know about the relationship between agriculture and beekeeping. We know that, by offering concrete, quantifiable and region-specific improvement measures, the results of the project will affect the agricultural and academic world. We hope that the results will form the basis for informed and tailored policy action, and that the program will be expanded to other countries. There is still a long road ahead, but we can walk along it with the certainty that the future of Latin America's honey bees will be an increasingly healthy one, with the continuous efforts from all.

Learn more about the Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America program.

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