Busy, buzzing bees are the cupids of flowers and workers of the forest. The contribution these fascinating insects make to humankind and our fragile ecosystem is indisputable. Evidence of apiculture, the practice of the maintenance of honeybee hives by humans, has been found on rock art dating back to 13,000 B.C. Pioneering beekeepers included the Mayans and ancient Egyptians, and today the sustainable development of apiculture is contributing to the betterment of rural communities in Costa Rica.
A recent visit with Universidad Nacional (UNA) to the community of San Pablo de Turrubares, southwest of San José, proved to be an educational and inspiring experience.
The university in Heredia, north of San José, in conjunction with its Tropical Beekeeping Research Center (CINAT) offers degree programs in all aspects of apiculture and related subjects. The center also offers teaching and community outreach programs aimed to educate the general population and train communities, particularly women in economically depressed areas, about the caring of bees and making of honey-based products (TT, Aug. 4).
With funding from sustainable development promoter Fundecooperación and assistance from the National Training Institute (INA) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, 11 CINAT gender-based associations exist between Puriscal, a town southwest of San José, and the areas around San Pablo de Turrubares, which extend almost to Parrita, on the central Pacific coast. These projects employ 81 women and 20 men.
“It’s a miracle for us,” said Mayra Herrero from San Rafael de Turrubares, a small community close to San Pablo. “The only employment we had before was the coffee harvest. Now, after only one year, we have 40 hives and employ 11 women. It helps us support our families and gives us a wonderful feeling of self-esteem.”
“The men are very impressed and think we are very brave working with all those bees,” she added with a grin.
Before we visited the hives, Rafael Calderón, the project coordinator, gave a slide show and talk about the perspectives, results and impact, both social and environmental, that apiculture has had on the region. According to Calderón, since the apiary was started in San Pablo three years ago (TT, Oct. 22, 2004), employment for women has increased, as have agricultural harvests, thanks to pollination by the bees.
He also pointed out that apiculture is linked to conservation, reforestation and a sustainable ecosystem that will affect future generations.
Visiting the hives entailed struggling into protective clothing, which was extremely necessary, as the bees are a cross between European species and Africanized bees, known for their aggressive behavior. Clad in heavy white cotton suits with tight elastic bands that fitted around the ankles and wrists, huge, heavy gloves, helmets and nets covering our heads and faces, we looked like an expedition about to walk on the moon.
We forded a small river and scrambled across a muddy field. Weighed down with gear, it was not an easy passage to the apiary, where metal hives stood among the grass in a small clearing surrounded by trees and other flowering vegetation.
To sedate the bees and make them less aggressive, a tin container with smoke wafting out of it was waved around the hive before it was opened. The insects seemed unperturbed by our presence, and we were able to observe a colony of about 30,000 bees at work. Our rainyseason visit meant that fewer plants were flowering and nectar harvesting was at its lowest, so the bees weren’t so busy, or buzzing around as much.
Three distinctive types of bees live within a hive. The queen is much bigger than the others, and her job is to populate the colony by laying thousands of eggs, but only one in each cell of the comb. The males, or drones, fertilize the queen and die after mating, or are driven out of the hive by the female worker bees, whose lifespan is about 30 to 35 days. The females work as a team collecting nectar and pollen, and then convert it into soft wax with their mandibles to build the basic structure of the hive – the comb where eggs are laid and honey is stored. They also defend and clean the hive, and keep the temperature regulated by fanning their wings.
Workers feed the larvae on nectar mixed with pollen, or “beebread,” and the queen on “royal jelly,” a blend of two secretions from their glands, which is her source of nourishment throughout her life. In the wild, a queen can live more than five years, but at the San Pablo apiary she’s replaced after a year, when her egg productivity starts to decrease.
The apiary raises and sells queens, honey and other bee products. Honey, pre-digested nectar, is not only eaten, it is also found in honey-based products such as cosmetics, toiletries and pharmaceutical products.
Beeswax is used in polishes and to make candles, and bee pollen is sometimes used as a food supplement.
Returning unscathed from our expedition for a delicious lunch at the San Pablo de Turrubares Community Center, we were able to purchase honey and a honey-and beeswax skin cream, and chat with beekeepers.
Some area schoolchildren gave us a display of traditional dancing, and we couldn’t help wondering how many future apiarists were among them.
For more information about beekeeping and CINAT’s projects, contact the center at 238-1868, or UNA at 277-3234.