Even in the land of sugar, honey is on every breakfast table.
Bee colony collapse is a problem around the world. Cuba, a country famous for its organic agriculture and vast areas of preserved nature, is taking part in stemming this tide by playing host to an abundance of beehives. As I traveled throughout Cuba, I was inspired to stop every time I saw one of these beehives, thus gaining a first hand understanding of the many uses and practices surrounding the keeping of bees and the formulation of my own hypothesis as to why Cuba has such a healthy bee population.
Some of these hives were temporarily placed next to fields of crops, a common agriculture pollinating practice. I pulled over to watch hive harvesting at one of these sites. While observing the harvest practices I noticed that a local had also pulled over and was walking back to his car with two recycled water bottles filled with fresh honey.
Another great site was towards the top of Cuba’s tallest mountain pass, where hives were spread out on a tropical ridge top overlooking hillside coffee plantations. Each hive was perched on it’s own four legs made from local wood. I still wonder what this honey tastes like.
While I visited a number of apiaries, the most educational was at a large government-operated apiary. I toured the apiary and inspected hives. While talking with the workers at great length, I found that they too are dealing with the international problem of bee colony collapse but are taking measures to combat the spread of any potential contaminants.
Some of the first unique and useful techniques I observed were the sanitation protocols at the entrance. A frame in the pathway holding local limestone powder is meant to neutralize contaminants on your shoes. A wash station with soap for your hands, along with bleach for your equipment, are further layers of protection against outside contamination of the apiary. Another great, but simple, technique was tilting the hives at a forward angle, allowing them to easily drain in the heavy tropical rain. This was of special interest to me since my home apiary is in the Redwood rainforest region of Northern California, USA.
The workers were passionate and open as we enthusiastically shared stories and pictures. They were surprised by my calmness around the bees, especially considering my lack of protective gear. Their bees were mostly the Italian, and the more aggressive African bees. The African bees did eventually convince me to give them some space. Before I left, the keepers showed me a metal bucket with a long stick that they used to catch the bee swarms high in trees. I thanked them for teaching me important new techniques and assured them I would use and share what I had learned.
By far my favorite hive in Cuba was in the Varahicacos Ecological Preserve in Varadero. I had been given access to the preserve hours before they opened, so there I was at dawn, on my own with a trail map as a guide. In the middle of the preserve I took a side trail to get a closer look at an unusual rock formation. I’d just come from spelunking in a similar rock formation where I found a bat cave, so I thought I’d see what I could find. What I found was a beehive, nestled under a protected rock overhang with enough honeycomb to fill possibly ten large bee boxes. I wondered how long the bees had used this rock for a hive. This hive was happy and productive, buzzing with prosperity around a honeycomb holding at least 20 gallons of honey.
Having traveled the entire country, I may disagree with the common idea that Cuba’s healthy bee population can be attributed to their organic agricultural practices. Instead, I would suggest that the abundance of Cuba’s preserved nature, joined with the simple, progressive, and successful practices of the beekeepers, practices that we can apply to aviaries internationally, combine to make Cuban bee colonies sustainable. I’ve already tilted all of my hives forward.
Boyd Smith has kept bees for over fifteen years. Organic gardens and bee-attracting flower gardens are great ways to help your local bees. A pollinating Mason bee hive is much cheaper, smaller, and easier than keeping honeybees. Check with your local college or community center for a beekeeper extension program. Please use caution when beekeeping or approaching hives.
Contact Ecologist Boyd Smith for more information on Cuban bees, or any international environment sustainability issues.