Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bees in a box uncover a rich history

Last week, at a package express office a woman caught my eye, first because she asked for her place to be held in line even though no one was behind her. Secondly, because she was preparing to send an intriguing box.

It was a wooden box, about 2.5 cm (an inch), and the width and length of a letter-sized piece of paper. It contained live queen bees.

When she rejoined the queue I told her I wanted to learn more about the strange package. She suggested I speak with her husband Enrique Estrada de la Mora, the president of the National Apiculture Association.

Enrique Estrada gave me a grand education about bees when we met for coffee. His career in apiculture began right about the time the Africanized bees arrived in Mexico in the mid 1980s.

I learned that Mexico is the world’s seventh largest producer of honey, and third largest exporter — 164 million dollars-a-year worth, mainly produced by peasant farmers.
Beehives are a common sight while driving through Mexico. They are the brightly painted wooden boxes on the sides of the roads.

Mexico’s Maya region is the most propitious for honey production, perhaps because it is the least urbanized and has a profusion of species of plants and trees in its tropical forests.
Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated bees for honey long before the Europeans arrived. The bees they kept were stingless.

European bees were introduced by the Spanish. This type of bee produces more honey than the native Mesoamerican Melipona bee and soon took over.

The next big change in Mexico’s beekeeping industry occurred in 1986 with the arrival of Africanized bees — descendants of 26 African queen bees that escaped from quarantine at an agricultural research station in Brazil in 1957.

Estrada told me, “When I started beekeeping I read a lot about the Africanized bee which had ravaged South America. It had reached Central America. I decided I wanted to specialize in the breeding of queen bees because I thought and still do think that is a very good way of controlling the defensibility of the hives.”

My layman’s view was that the Africanized bee is much more aggressive than the European bee. In fact, I’d heard of farm animals and people being killed by them.

Estrada corrected me. “Bees aren’t aggressive, they’re defensive. They attack in defense. Africanized bees are more defensive than European bees.”

When they are more defensive more bees respond to the attack. That’s what causes the fatalities — dozens or hundreds of bee stings almost simultaneously.

Estrada breeds two types of bees and sells them to beekeepers all over Mexico, Central, and South America. He’s one of 40 to 50 queen bee breeders in Mexico who produce for sale. There are also 200 to 300 who produce for their own use. In the 1990s Estrada produced 20,000 queen bees per year. Now, he breeds about 6,000 per year. While his income is down, so is his stress level.

The high-ticket queen bees Estrada breeds are instrumentally inseminated with European semen.

He also sells the next generation of queen bees, those inseminated naturally in flight by drones in their surroundings. In a couple of days they mate with multiple drones and store up enough semen for the rest of their two- to seven-year life. Their offspring may alternate between European and Africanized bees. Estrada emphasized, “We now have bees that practically don’t sting. Those inseminated instrumentally are very docile. However, those inseminated freely sometimes mate with Africanized drones leading to colonies that sting but not in a big way, just as it had been before the arrival of the Africanized bees.”

Estrada told me bees act as an environmental gauge. “When we see bees dying we know something serious is happening in the environment.”

He’s particularly concerned about recently developed herbicide that is sprayed on thousands of hectares of crops. It is designed to kill everything except the cash crop.

“Only one type of pollen combined with the insecticide used on that crop leads to what is called the honeybee colony collapse disorder. The disappearance of millions of hives in the world.”

“How can humans make that decision of killing everything? Humans many times think that we can attack life and come out ahead. That will never happen.”

Estrada told me that almond producers in the United States need 1.5 million hives each year for two or three weeks while the trees are flowering. Beekeepers are paid well to transport their hives to the almond groves. When the three weeks are over there may be 400,000 dead hives.

“The beekeeper can replace the hives because a profit is being made and losses are covered. However, we shouldn’t be killing animals to replace them later.”

Before leaving I related to Estrada the way his wife had saved a space in line that didn’t exist. “She foresees the future,” was his comment.

I thought, “It seems to be a family trait.”

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