Agriculture has huge significance in Latin America—both culturally and economically—and bees are pivotal to this, acting as pollinators for many fruits, vegetables and nuts. In Chile, for instance, this includes important crops such as almonds, avocados and cherries; in fact, 70-90 percent1 of the fruit harvest there depends on bees pollinating the flowers. In Colombia, bees are important for pollinating local staple crops including beans, tomatoes and avocados, as well as the many fruits for which the country is famous.
At A Glance
The Healthy Hives Latin America 2020 (Salud Apícola 2020 Latinoamérica) program is a collaboration between the Bayer Bee Care Center and the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation, working alongside local researchers at universities and beekeepers’ associations.
The program’s activities focus on monitoring honey bee health and the factors that affect this; disseminating knowledge to educate beekeepers about the best apicultural practices; and creating networks and research collaborations to jointly work on honey bee health.
Starting with a forerunner project in Chile in 2015, the program expanded throughout Latin America in 2017 and 2018, with activities underway in Colombia and Argentina, and soon to begin in Costa Rica (figure 1).
But honey bees are under pressure from multiple factors: pests and diseases, changing weather patterns, inappropriate beekeeping and agricultural practices, and environmental degradation. These challenges are found in many places around the world, and the comparative significance of each factor is relatively well understood in places such as Europe and the USA. For example, pests and diseases, beekeeping practices, and a beekeeper’s background (whether hobbyist or professional) and their education level regarding beekeeping are, according to published literature2, the most important factors impacting honey bee health in Europe. Until recently, though, little was known about the factors affecting honey bee health in Latin America, let alone how this relates to crop pollination and yields.
Bayer Bee Care Program
Collaborative research and collective action are essential to protect pollinators, improve bee health and maintain pollination services, and should be based on an understanding of the specific local situation. The Bayer Bee Care Program does this by collaborating with local experts to provide rigorous science, and then taking steps to ensure:
- practical solutions are applied and lead to positive change in the field; and
- pollinator protection receives the public attention it needs.
The Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America program illustrates this approach, aiming to impact the way apiculture is handled in the region by teaming up with local experts, doing the necessary research, and delivering the tools and instruments needed to professionalize the sector.
The Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America Program
By working together with local institutions and connecting research with the activities of beekeepers and farmers, the Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America program proposes tailor-made solutions that meet the specific needs of communities and countries in Latin America. Figure 2 outlines its vision.
- Improved apicultural practices
- Stronger and healthier honey bee colonies
- An increased number of worker bees per colony
- Stronger worker bees that collect more pollen and nectar—producing more honey
- Greater frequency of flower visits—leading to increased crop pollination
We will achieve our objectives through undertaking a work program in four countries (Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica). By 2020, with data from the monitoring, training, and collaborative activities, we will be in a position to identify the main factors that influence the health and productivity of honey bee populations, and propose strategies to improve the sustainability of beekeeping.
Evaluate the specific characteristics of honey bee health in each country / territory to identify intervention strategies that will improve specific areas of health management.
Develop, implement, and validate models and training methods in specific territories of the four countries, which will improve beekeeping practices by 2020.
Establish a collaborative network of Latin American researchers, beekeepers, farmers, and social actors to share experiences and generate new knowledge about beekeeping and bee health management, focusing on preventing the causes of ill health.
The forerunner of the Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America program was initiated in Chile in 2015. This country is famed for its geographical diversity, packing a wide range of landscapes into its borders—and honey bees can be found in almost all of these. But whether they live in the foothills of the Andes or by the coast, in grasslands or in forests, their basic needs are the same.
In the words of Marnix Doorn, Program Director, “Honey bees need to eat and drink and their hives need to be sanitary.” One of the project’s overarching aims, therefore, is to work with beekeepers to improve hive management practices and ensure their bees can thrive. “And so, in turn, should the production of the hive and the income of the beekeeper!”
Establishing a Baseline in Central Chile
The factors that influence bee health can vary between regions, so the initial step was to determine exactly what needed to change in Central Chile. During the forerunner project, Marnix and his team at the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation sought to collect baseline data about honey bee health—information that was largely absent across the country. Using the Fraunhofer monitoring model, they gathered information about:
- beekeepers and their management practices (e.g. pest control, hive migration)
- colony/hive strength (e.g. colony structures, honey, and pollen amounts)
- the incidence of pests and pathogens (e.g. Varroa mites) in hives
- pesticide use (e.g. presence and level of residues in bee bread)3
The monitoring stage was completed in 2016 and one crucial finding was that many beekeepers lacked knowledge about how to care for their hives properly: how to keep the hive clean, how to ensure bees have a varied and nutritional diet and on preventative measures to tackle pests such as Varroa mites.
Monitoring Activities in Chile During the Forerunner Chile Project (2015-2016)
Working in three regions in Central Chile, the team completed five monitoring exercises:
- 271 beekeepers took part in the monitoring
- 69 apiaries and 813 beehives were monitored
- More than 8,130 combs were checked
- 813 worker bee samples and 271 bee bread samples were taken
The Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America Monitoring Approach in Chile
Beekeepers and Their Management Practices
- Beekeeper characteristics
- Supplementary feeding of colonies
- Varroa treatments
- Colony mortality
- Pest control
- Beekeepers: 17 % small-scale (< 50 hives), 45 % medium-scale (50-500 hives), 38 % large-scale (> 500 hives); 59 % do not move their colonies for pollination
- Feeding: two types of supplement used (sugar-based and protein-based), mostly prepared by beekeepers; honey is rarely used
- Mortality: Average mortality rate was 20 percent
- Starved colonies were fed with inappropriate supplementary feeds
- There were not enough foraging plants around apiaries.
- Colony structure (worker bees, capped, and uncapped cells)
- Amount of honey and pollen in the hive
- Beekeepers used hives of different sizes
- The biggest hives were, at most, six full combs completely covered with worker bees
Pest and Pathogens
- General signs of pests and diseases
- Varroa destructor
- Nosema spp
- In general, a high proportion of sick colonies
- Highest Varroa infestation rates detected during summer months (December, January, February) and Nosema during spring (September, October)
- Treatments to control pests: generally home-made treatments, which were applied incorrectly; poor treatment practices, e.g. use of expired products, poor disposal of products
Training Chilean Beekeepers
Building on these results, in 2018, activities moved on to capacity-building* for beekeepers in Central Chile, with a focus on hive management practices and prevention of the causes of poor bee health. This was another step toward achieving the program’s overall aims—to professionalize beekeeping practices (Figure 2), and to maintain or enhance pollination.
The project team worked in close partnership with two beekeeping associations (around 15 people) to develop a capacity-building* approach that would be effective in that region. The training focused on practical, hands-on learning – and constant feedback from participants helped to strengthen and improve the methods used. “The eagerness to learn and to become a better beekeeper, was present in everyone,” says Mayda Verde, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation who is leading the project’s training activities.
The team learned a lot about what works in capacity-building* over the course of the year. For example, it quickly became clear that working with small groups and basing the activities in the field, worked best. This kept the capacity-building approach practical and focused on what happens in the hives. And the results were striking, as Figure 5 shows.
“Seeing the participants apply, little by little, what they have learned, either in a practical or theoretical way, is not only interesting but also comforting,” Mayda Verde states. “It means you are contributing to the transformation of a productive sector. In addition, the beekeepers recognize the results and are grateful for them.”
The next step will be to scale this up across Chile and motivate other stakeholders to support this exciting work.
Improvements to Beekeeping Practices and Honey Bee Health After Capacity-Building
Figure 5: Beekeepers and their management practices
Hive Hygiene and Positioning
- Used material not lying around (e.g. wax, old combs, dead pupae/worker bees, empty containers)
- Hives not sitting directly on the ground
- At least a one-meter spacing between colonies
- Beehive entrances clean and open (i.e. no obstructions, such as tall grass)
Knowledge and Record-Keeping
- Beehives are numbered
- Records kept of beekeeping tasks
- Queens are exchanged
- Beekeepers can distinguish between high- and low-quality wax
- Beekeepers avoid contamination by chemicals stored in the apiary
- Beekeepers know if there are others apiaries within a three-kilometer radius
Pest and Pathogens
- Varroa infestation ≤ three percent
- Healthy-looking brood
- Hive is free of old varroacide treatments
- Absence of moths on combs or at the bottom of the hive
- Bottom of hives clean and free of debris
- Materials used to build the hive are in good condition
- Only one hive entrance
- Hives inclined to 30° in regard to the entrance
- Good worker bee populations
- Combs with sufficient food reserves (pollen and nectar)
- No old or damaged combs
- Quality supplementary diets provided in a proper way (i.e. clean, no dead bees inside)
Expanding Activities in Columbia
Alongside the progress in Chile, the Healthy Hives 2020 program stepped up its activities in Colombia during 2018. Working in the Department of Cauca—which was selected because it had some statistics available on beekeeping. (e.g. number of beekeepers, number of hives)—a monitoring team, comprising trained local beekeepers and researchers from the Corporación Universitaria Comfacauca (UNICOMFACAUCA), monitored 91 beekeepers (with 954 beehives between them) in 15 municipalities across four geographic zones of contrasting environmental conditions.
The preliminary results show that there are several opportunities to improve hive management practices. For example, 83.5 percent of the beekeepers surveyed did not know how to measure the rates of Varroa mite infestation. This had become obvious during the monitoring where infestation rates above the treatment threshold for managed honey bee colonies of three percent (in some cases at rates higher than six percent) were detected.4 Where diagnosis of pests and pathogens is frequently left to the beekeeper, he often lacks information on potential honey bee diseases and knowledge on and access to diagnostics.
The survey also revealed that most of the participating beekeepers learned this trade through family traditions: Few had received any technical advice on apicultural health or training in good beekeeping practices. Perhaps related to this, most beekeepers did not keep records of their beekeeping activities or of Varroa infestation levels; nor did they change their queens or move their hives to provide pollination services.
The next steps in Colombia will be to provide training: “Having established the main apiculture challenges in the Cauca region, we now need to improve apicultural practices and bee health management,” confirms Mayda.
Some of the lessons from the program’s Chilean capacity-building experience can be applied in Colombia as well. These include the need to work with small groups and to make the training practical and field-based: The focus will remain firmly on what’s happening in the hives. Yet some elements will need to be adapted to ensure a focus on the specific health issues identified in the region and to arrange for suitable logistics of the training events. Participants in Chile often drove to the training sites, but at the project sites in Colombia, people usually travel by horse or walk, and live up to six hours away from the training sites. As such, a different approach will be needed to reduce the travel burden on participants.
Mayda Verde is a veterinarian from the Agrarian University of Havana, Cuba, and a researcher at the Fraunhofer Chile Research Foundation. She plays several roles in the Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America program. As well as guiding monitoring activities and analyzing the results, she conducts the training program in each country, tailoring it to the most relevant health problems detected through the monitoring process.
On top of this, she contributes to a range of publications, both scientific and more generalist, to share the program’s results. This helps to tackle one of the main problems for beekeepers in Latin America: The lack of knowledge about sanitary hive management.
By accident! In December 1979, I found a job as a veterinarian at what is now the Empresa Apícola Cubana (APICUBA), established by Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture. But I had not covered beekeeping during my time as a student. As a result, I had to work with a species I knew little about. At APICUBA, I began to read about bees and their benefits for nature and humans. I was fascinated! A new, unknown world was unveiled and, from that moment, I knew this was the area of research I wanted to explore. What are you currently working on?
Today, most honey bees are intensively-managed via modern beekeeping practices and this increases the risk of disease. My focus is on measuring and evaluating the factors that allow diseases to emerge and develop in honey bee populations – and then how to control them, taking a preventive approach to the causes of disease, rather than trying to cure them.
This knowledge, if applied, will improve the collective health of honey bees. Ultimately, understanding the multifaceted health problems that affect beehives will lead to public policies that improve their management at different points in the value chain. And, efficient disease management helps to guarantee that customers have high-quality products in their hands, which bring economic benefits. To achieve this, though, it is necessary to invest in capacity-building. Not only at the academic level, but also – above all, in fact – for beekeepers.
It depends on the audience! If we are talking about the people who create public policies, they should know that managed honey bees support agricultural activities that ensure food security. Pollination services provided by honey bees help farmers improve the quantity and quality of their agricultural yields, at least for crops that need insect pollination. This brings me to the most challenging part of my work: It is not enough to just propose models or sanitary measures; these need to be adapted to the social, political and cultural realities of each human and productive environment. That is not easy! For those who work with bees, they should know that it is necessary to change the way they handle the diseases that affect this species – and with a preventive approach, not a curative one. This is possible if we encourage a sense of responsibility for bees.
For society as a whole, it may be interesting to know about the benefits of bees: The pollination services they provide, the products that can be obtained from the hives. Beekeeping provides more than honey and wax; for example, apitherapy5 is a promising, but little-known, field of modern medicine.
This is complex: Not all countries in the region have achieved the same progress in professionalizing beekeeping, which is a key element for successful disease management in modern hives. The most interesting aspect of my work on the Healthy Hives 2020 program has been getting to know the diversity of productive beekeeping systems and the ways in which beekeeping is organized and managed in different scenarios and countries.
Some trends are consistent, though. Varroosis, the destructive honey bee disease caused by the Varroa mite, is the main problem in the countries we have worked in. Despite the countless investigations carried out into its control, it remains unresolved. This shows that the way we are dealing with it – through veterinary measures against the parasite – is not the most effective.
And, in my opinion, there are other health issues in hives: fungi, bacteria, other pests and predators, chemical residues. Some of these have not been properly studied due to the lack of specialists in the field, or a lack of sampling. It is frequently left to the beekeeper – who is often uninformed about the possible causes – to diagnose the problem and choose the solution. In addition, they do not have access to specialized laboratories where they can make a proper diagnosis. On top of this, I believe there is also a need for veterinarians to specialize in beekeeping practices, but not all universities in the region include this in their undergraduate courses.
Beekeeping in Latin America has to be a priority for the public sector and authorities. We need to create tools and instruments to professionalize the health management of honey bees. Moreover, to reconcile agricultural and beekeeping interests, we need the support tools generated through the Healthy Hives 2020 program.
Small-scale beekeepers are vital for pollination services and they cannot be excluded or marginalized by those who have grown stronger or have more capital. These producers require more technical and economic support, for example, to implement sanitary regulations. To achieve this, we need standardized and affordable training programs that align the knowledge generated by this project with the interests of the beekeeping sector.
The development of modern, intensive and sustainable beekeeping is only possible with healthy hives – in equilibrium with the surrounding ecosystem. Changing the approach to bee health – from curing problems to preventing them – is the main challenge for the beekeeping sector, especially in the face of climate change and new agricultural and beekeeping paradigms. This is achieved by training beekeepers and increasing the social recognition of the sector. The Healthy Hives 2020 Latin America program contributes to these aspirations.
Bringing Healthy Hives to Argentine and Costa Rica
In 2019, the program expanded further, with activities gathering pace in Argentina and Costa Rica. “We will complete the initial monitoring process in Argentina in 2019 to establish a baseline,” confirms Marnix Doorn. “Capacity-building will start at the end of the year.”
The Healthy Hives team, collaborating with Rosario University, is working in five departments in Santa Fe Province. Argentina is the third-largest honey exporter in the world, with around 20,000 producers.6 Santa Fe Province accounts for 12 percent of national production and beekeeping has grown in recent years, with several cooperatives and associations emerging.
Monitors were trained during October and December 2018, and monitoring activities are taking place from March to April and from August to September 2019. This will be done by a 12-person team that includes veterinarians, veterinary students, beekeeping technicians and producers, who will work with 80 beekeepers.
Working in Argentina allows the project team to study bee health in a new setting, as the project sites are in cash crop regions. “This gives us a monoculture to contrast the fruit production regions of Chile and Colombia,” says Marnix.
In late 2019, monitoring activities will begin in Costa Rica. This will be a chance to examine the health of managed bees in a highly biodiverse country and to test the project’s overall approach—monitoring, capacity-building, networking in a Central American context.
A Healthy Outlook for Latin America's Bees
“Improving the health of honey bees is an urgent task,” concludes Marnix Doorn, “and it must be approached from different disciplines because many factors can affect it.”
The Healthy Hives 2020 program is analyzing several different factors—beekeeping management practices, hive strength, existing diseases and inappropriate use of agrochemicals—to identify the specific problems in different regions across the continent. This is generating the data and knowledge that has, to date, been lacking. Knowledge which will hopefully provide the basis for informed and tailored policy action and deliver the tools and instruments needed to professionalize the health management of honey bees which, in turn, will lead to a stronger agricultural sector. And, as more and more farmers and beekeepers share this knowledge through their networks and are trained in how to put this into practice, the future for Latin America’s bees will be increasingly healthy.
- Blacquiere, T. and J.J.M. van der Steen. 2017. Three years of banning neonicotinoid insecticides based on sub-lethal effects: can we expect to see effects on bees? Pest Manag. Sci. [online]. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ps.4583/full Jacques, A. et al. 2017. A pan-European epidemiological study reveals honey bee colony survival depends on beekeeper education and disease control. PLoS ONE 12: e0172591. [online]. Available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0172591
- Bee bread is pollen to which honey and bee secretions are added to make a nutritional protein source for bee larvae.
- The percentage of infested bees present in a sample. An infestation rate of three percent is recognized as the treatment threshold for managed honey bee colonies. Delaplane, K.S. and W.M. Hood. 1997. Effects of delayed acaricide treatment in honey bee colonies parasitized by Varroa jacobsoni and a late season treatment threshold for the southeastern USA. J. Apic. Res. 36: 125–132
- The use of honey bee products for medical purposes.
- Consejo Federal de Inversiones, MINAGRO, Argentina.