When Javier Rojas was a teenager, he took advantage of every high school break to run and see the bees. Only 50 metres away from his classroom were the beehives of the Ricardo Castro Agricultural School in Orotina, Costa Rica where beekeeping was part of the student’s education.
“The bees were very docile back then. We used to have competitions to see who could stand the most stings!” he says.
What began as a teenage love of bees soon became his life’s work. After finishing high school, Javier with his brother Minor, got the first swarms to start beekeeping at home. They brought them home in burlap sacks. What started with eight hives has now become 100. Javier dedicates half to hire as a pollination service for melons, and sometimes coffee. The other half are for honey production.
In a good year he produces between 1,000 and 1,250 kilograms of honey. Each colony has between 80,000 and 100,000 bees. Javier is used to getting stung, he now says that he no longer feels them.
However, what does cause him pain is to see how, year by year, on the land near his home, the number of trees and plants that provide the nectar that the bees need to produce their honey, are being lost.
It is not just Javier’s problem. Changes in land use, more agrochemicals, and a changing climate are affecting bees and their productivity.
“Costa Rica exported honey to the United States and Europe from 1918 to 1984. This was honey of the highest quality and highly valued in those markets. Today, our own production does not satisfy the national market. With few exceptions, the average annual production in our country is only 18 kilograms per beehive. To guarantee decent living conditions each beekeeper should harvest at least 40 kilograms per hive,” says Juan Bautista Alvarado, President of the National Chamber of Beekeeping,
This situation is why beekeepers, in Alvarado’s words, are “heroes and heroines”. In Costa Rica, there are between 1,000 and 1,500 people who breed and harvest between 50,000 and 70,000 beehives. National honey consumption is around 1,200 tons per year and is far from being supplied by local production.
The National University of Costa Rica estimates that 65 percent of the plants on the planet require pollinators, and of these, the most important are bees. Crops such as melon, watermelon, avocado, tomato, coffee, papaya, citrus, blackberry, strawberries and chayote, contribute US$250 million to the Costa Rican economy every year. Bees are crucial for these crops.
The Small Grants Programme (SGP) financed by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and implemented by UNDP is supporting beekeepers working in the Jesus Maria and Barranca River watersheds, the two most degraded watersheds in the country, in the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica.
In 2017, the Association of Central Pacific Beekeepers (APIPAC), submitted an ambitious project to the SGP, and its strategic partner, the Advisory Commission on Land Degradation (CADETI) for beekeeping training which resulted in genetic improvements to bee swarms. The programme also provided money for purchasing equipment and sugar.
It built two mobile honey extraction units, each valued at US$14,000. These units have led to improvements in the efficiency of the honey extraction process and greater sanitary controls. APIPAC brings together 24 beekeepers from San Mateo, Orotina, and Esparza who between them have 1,106 beehives. Thanks to these units, honey is now more homogenized, of better quality, and has fewer impurities. and has the approval of the National Animal Health Service (SENASA), which is indispensable for the honey to be marketed legally.
“We are proud to support this flagship programme and dedicate all our efforts to continue supporting productive community-based organizations,” says UNDP Resident Representative in Costa Rica José Vicente Troya Rodríguez.
Javier Rojas is enthusiastic about a new plan for genetically improving the queen bees in his hives. Rojas says that he used to have considerable limitations to develop his passion for beekeeping. If a protective suit tore, he had to mend it because buying another one meant he had to travel to San José or Alajuela, and he did not always have the money.
These days he can go to a revolving fund to buy supplies at cost.
“We recently bought sugar. I asked for some sacks of sugar to work with until mid-August. The association offered us the sugar and allowed us to pay for it until April next year without any interest,” he says.
Such deals and training courses allow Rojas to free up time and resources to raise better queen bees for his hives because they are the most expensive.
“If the queen bee is pure, it costs between 100 and 150 US dollars. Before, I used to breed queen bees naturally, but we now do it artificially with better techniques: by removing the eggs and transferring them to specially designed cups. So now we can give them the right conditions,” he says.
Story: Rodolfo González Ulloa; Photos: UNDP Cost Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores; Editors: UNDP Costa Rica/Charles Dixon and Ingrid Hernández Sánchez