April 27, 2016

Coffee Farming and Beekeeping in Latin America: A Path to Food Security


La Roya hasn’t just been ruining coffee production; it’s been ruining lives. Luckily, Food 4 Farmers is taking it on themselves to help give coffee farmers the food security that they need in this desperate time.

But how are they doing it? And what does this mean for coffee farmers? Read on to discover the answers to these questions and more.

Beekeeping: Alejandro’s salvation.

Alejandro gently lifts off the honey super and calms the bees with smoke from his ahumador. The super is packed with 10 kilos of rich golden honey. For the last three years this very honey has been the economic salvation of Alejandro’s family, providing much-needed compensation for coffee sales lost as a result of the devastating La Roya, or coffee leaf rust, disease.

SEE ALSO: Coffee Farming & Beekeeping: Solution to Endemic Pest Species & Genetic Diversity?

Beekeeper showing honeycomb

Bees, the key to income stability for many coffee producers. Credit: B. Mares

Why Beekeeping?

I’m the co-author of a book on specialty coffee production, but I’ve also been a beekeeper for forty years. So when working on my book, I became increasingly fascinated by the idea that honey production could deliver supplemental income and nutritional benefits to coffee farmers – and therefore help them through periods of food insecurity. There was also evidence, in some places, that bees could help pollinate coffee plants – or at least stimulate the production of coffee cherries.

There are other benefits, too: farmers can keep bees without owning more land, bee swarms are free goods, and bees can help the environment and home gardens through pollination. All of this could help to give coffee farmers stability.

Not to mention that it has a long, if tumultuous, history in Latin America…

Beekeeping in Latin America: A (Brief) History Lesson

Latin American beekeeping extends back to pre-Colombian times, with stingless native species such as the Meliponini and Trigona. Their honey was used as a sweetener, and the byproducts (pollen, propolis and wax) were used as medicines.

Melliponini bee nest

The nest of the native bee Meliponini. Credit: B. Mares

After European bees became established in Latin America in the 19th century, the locals started to use modern equipment to raise commercial quantities of honey. This was in addition to the pre-existing “rustic” honey production.  

However, with the spread of Africanized “killer” bees in the 1950s, beekeeping in Latin America went into steep decline. Honey production fell by over 50% as these bees killed hundreds of people and thousands of livestock.

Nevertheless, twenty years later, with an increased demand for honey, both locally and abroad; modern equipment; and protective clothing, beekeeping has returned – which makes it an excellent solution for many struggling coffee producers.

Log Nest for bees

A log nest. Credit: B.Mares

Food 4 Farmers: Creating Beekeeping Programmes

In certain areas, practice was already ahead of theory: farmers and cooperatives were combining coffee and honey, and developing local, national and even international markets. With high international demand and stable honey prices, we had proof that this community-appropriate strategy could work.

With scientific and economic reasoning behind us, as well as the proof that it could succeed, we had all we needed to start developing beekeeping programmes for coffee producers.

We reached out to our network of colleagues in academic institutions, agricultural extension services, social finance, and the honey industry. We were soon joined by authors, academics and beekeepers from around the world, who provided us with guidance and assistance in establishing support systems and learning resources.

We began working with Food 4 Farmers, an NGO working to increase food security in Latin American coffee-growing communities. One of our most popular programmes teaches coffee farmers how to diversify into beekeeping.

Current projects in Mexico and Guatemala are in their early stages, but are already helping small farmers to diversify their production beyond coffee and achieve community-wide food security.

bolivian festive dress

Professor Dewey Caron hard at work in Bolivia. Credit: B. Mares

Overcoming the Challenges of Beekeeping

As Food 4 Farmers developed and we honed the beekeeping programmes, we learned that one size does not fit all. Coffee cooperatives were choosing one of several ways to add beekeeping to their agricultural portfolios:  

  1. Most often, farmers were deciding to continue growing coffee and supplementing their income by keeping bees.
  2. In some cases, certain individuals in a cooperative would take up beekeeping exclusively, while others focused only on coffee.
  3. Rarely, all the farmers would switch from coffee to honey production.  

There are challenges, of course: the aggressiveness of the ‘killer bees’ and their stings  were too much for some new beekeepers; honey and coffee harvests can conflict; and learning a new agricultural skill takes time.  

So we had to develop customised training programmes at our Food 4 Farmers project sites. The two examples below show why this approach was crucial for success.

beekeepers working the CESMACH hives

Maya Ixil beekeepers working the hives together. Credit: B. Mares

1. Maya Ixil Association – Nebaj, Guatemala

Working with Food 4 Farmers and with financial support from Root Capital, Maya Ixil established a 2-year training programme for coffee farmers interested in becoming commercial beekeepers. With our Mexican partners, CADIA, we set up a communal apiary school. Fifty-three coffee farmers signed up, coming together twice a week to work the hives, learn beekeeping basics and support each other.

After a year, all participants had the opportunity to take their own hives back to their farms. Instead, they decided to keep the hives at the communal apiary and continue to work and learn together. After nearly 2 years, only 12 beekeepers have dropped out – in comparison with the typical dropout rate of 50%. The 41 remaining beekeepers are now harvesting high-quality honey.

Maya Ixil Woman Beekeeper at work

Beekeeping also gives women a source of income. Credit: B. Mares

To sell their new product, Maya Ixil has become a member of an established regional honey cooperative, COPIASURO. This cooperative exports honey to Fair Trade buyers in the EU, connecting Maya Ixil to a lucrative market.

Now that the project’s initial phase is coming to an end, Maya Ixil has asked us to continue working with them. Our future plans are to expand its beekeeping business and increase the production of nutritious, locally grown food.

Kids at Maya Ixil workshop learning about beekeeping

It’s not just adults that are eager to learn about beekeeping. Credit: B. Mares 

2. CESMACH Cooperative – Chiapas, Mexico

With funding from the Progreso Foundation, and additional financial support from Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea and the Coffeelands Foundation, this 3-year project will build CESMACH’s capacity to produce high-quality honey and other bee products.

CESMACH has already been producing and packaging honey, and now boasts 50 experienced beekeepers, thanks to Heifer International. With our training partner, ECOSUR, we’re adding another 20 coffee farmers who want to use beekeeping to diversify and increase their income.

beekeepers inspecting beehives

New beekeepers inspect the hives weekly. Credit: B. Mares

After we began the project, the cooperative asked us for more training for their current beekeepers, so we added advanced workshops for this group too. As much of their equipment is in poor condition, we also agreed to raise funds to help all 70 beekeepers get the supplies they need.

Along with producing more honey, we will work with CESMACH to help them develop successful business plans for this growing and lucrative business venture.

honey production

CESMACH is learning how to diversify production beyond honey. Credit: B. Mares

Coffee and Honey: Una Boda Bonita

After more than 40 years of beekeeping, I believe mixing beekeeping and coffee farming can be, in the words of one farmer, una boda bonita – a beautiful marriage. But don’t take my word for it.  After the coffee rust hit, a Maya Ixil coffee farmer told us that beekeeping was the only way he could afford his family’s basic needs.

Una bona bonita indeed.

Edited by H. Paull.

Perfect Daily Grind.