Africanized bees, climate and disease killing Mexico's honey

Honey production was “10 percent less than regular,” said Ricardo Gutierrez, who manages 800 hives in the hillside near the Aztec town of Mazamitla. Photo: Wayne Anderson

LAKE CHAPALA, Mexico, February 20, 2012 — Africanized bees, climate change and disease are seen by local beekeepers as the cause for the drop in honey production around Mexico’s largest freshwater lake.

Honey production was “10 percent less than regular,” said Ricardo Gutierrez, who manages 800 hives in the hillside near the Aztec town of Mazamitla and elsewhere in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, Communities.

“It is because of the (rain) water, and maybe the weather,” Gutierrez said through a translator.

“There’s not enough rain, so the flowers do not bloom well. It was just a drought this year.”

As Gutierrez was giving this interview to Communities the weather was acting more oddly—it was raining. Locals say it “never” rains in winter.

Ricardo Gutierrez, honey farmer (Image: Wayne Anderson) (Click to enlarge)

Ricardo Gutierrez, honey farmer (Image: Wayne Anderson) (Click to enlarge)

Along with the inconsistent climate patterns the bees are experiencing in Mexico, there is the consistent problem of bee diseases, which is taking its toll on honey production.

“The bees have probably suffered from some type of disease because the population has been greatly reduced,” said Jose Luis Amezcua, a beekeeper of 40 years from the touristy lakeside town of Ajijic.

“We know that something is happening with the bees that are causing them to die inside the beehives,” he said through a translator. “This problem started about two to three years ago.”

If adverse weather and pestilence were not enough to challenge the estimated 41,000 beekeepers across Mexico tending 2 million hives, the type of bees they’re now forced to work with is no help either. 

“With the Africanized bee, most of what could be said about them is really negative,” said Amezcua. “The Italian bees will stay within the area and try to utilize all the plants that are available within the area. They work hard. This is not the case with the Africans.”

“The African bees don’t seem to like large colonies, so as soon as you have a community that is a little bit large, they just take off (swarm),” said Amezcua. “The Italian bees really reproduce and they remain until the population has really grown…With the Italian bees you have a lot of honey available to you.”

Exactly all that is troubling the bees around Lake Chapala and elsewhere in Mexico is unknown. And unfortunately what is troubling the $56 million honey industry is left to local beekeepers to figure out.

“The beekeepers are on their own and they try to learn and figure out how to solve their problems with the bees because the government has not taken any action,” Amezcua said.

What beekeepers are well aware of is an old nemesis: The varroa mite, a tiny bloodsucking parasite that latches on to and weakens the bees.

Scientists believe varroa mites are a prominent contributing factor to colony collapse disorder. There are no reports of CCD in Mexico, according to a United Nations University study.

Beyond the mutual problems Mexican and American beekeepers share, there remains the love and science of this ancient man-insect association. And that art helps keep the rich tradition going.

And lest the obvious not be spoken, there’s the sweet and profitable byproduct of natural honey that comes with this 3,500-year-old partnership. Honey remains popular in Mexico.

Amezcua said he runs about 20 hives and sells all the honey he can, about half a ton a year. Sales are good even at $5.50 a liter, because folks know he sells 100 percent pure honey—not honey “adulterated” with corn syrup.

Honey sales are not regulated. “This is something that really should have strict regulations,” Amezcua said. “And if they were enforced, it would only take a few pesos to the people (government inspectors) and they would close their eyes.”

Unlike honey sales, where you can keep bees is regulated. “The government has very strict regulations as to the beehive keeping,” said Amezcua. “They limit apiaries to 300 meters (328 yards) from the homes or from any roads, any trails.”

But feral bees can be seen in the pueblo working the Encino and Palo Dolce trees and Tetawaha flowers in yards and gardens, and of course buzzing around every roadside stand where fresh fruit is on display.

The majority of beekeepers take to the hills to set up their yards. And unlike American apiaries in the wild, it’s rare to see an electric (solar) fence around their hives.

“You know this is something that probably should be done,” said Amezcua. “But you have to remember there is an economic factor involved…most people do not have money.”

The bee equipment here is the same in the US, standard Langstroth deep and shallow hive bodies. And today you’ll find hand extractors. But not long ago, these Mexican beekeepers extracted the ancient Egyptian way by reaching into a hive, pulling out combs and squeezing them by hand.

Extracting comes after the main honey flow in March-April and September-October. They’ll get about “5 gallons” per hive.

The bees are working hard to make it in Mexico. And unanimously beekeepers said they wish to engage in a dialog with their neighbors to the north.

It may be by combining forces, knowledge love that we’ll discover what’s threatening God’s greatest pollinators

You can email Wayne Anderson or get a wider understanding of him on his website.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Wayne Anderson

Wayne Anderson is a warm beekeeper in northwest Wisconsin, who travels the world as a freelance news correspondent for Communities at The Washington Times and other fine media, covering the wars in the Middle East, reporting on and running from pirates off the coast of East Africa and sharing with readers the wonders of beekeeping in the strangest places around the world. 

Buzz on Bees is a column promoting the love and life of God’s greatest pollinators on earth: The Honeybee. Send me your input and column ideas. And I will work as busy as a bee to get them in print.   

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