nicaragua 1

Nicaragua and Organic Honey
Gilles Fert
Abeilles sélectionées 

Nicaragua is situated between North and South America. It is a land of lakes, forests and volcanoes. Beekeeping has existed there since the days of pre-Hispanic civilisation. Today, a beekeeper is able to support his family with fifty hives.

As well as its exceptional geographical situation, Nicaragua is also the largest country in Central America, almost as big as England. Its famous lakes cover an area of 9240 km2 and make up Central America's largest reserve of fresh water. Lake Nicaragua and Managua alone cover 10% of the country's surface. There are 58 volcanoes, of which six are still active.

The population of 5.2 million is made up of 69% half-breeds, 17% whites, 9% blacks and 5% Amerindians, the resulting population is as varied as it is welcoming. Nicaragua is a stopping off place for people from many different countries. The first Amerindians came from Mexico in the north, and to a lesser degree from Columbia and Peru in the south.

The official language is Spanish, although English is spoken along the Atlantic coast. The native languages Miskitos and Mayagna are still spoken by several thousand people in the eastern part of the country.

A series of economic crises, the civil war from the 80s to the 90s, as well as a variety of natural disasters such as hurricane Mitch in October 98 have reduced Nicaragua to the second poorest country on the continent after Haiti. The income per capita in 2002 was under 450 €.

Fresco in the Masaya Museum depicting Nicaragua's different
agricultural activities 
(find the hive!)

Today, 37% of the population are illiterate, whereas this figure was only 11% in 1990. Due to a lack of finance and the need for agricultural workers in the fields, numerous families are unable to send their children to school. This affects 30% of children under 15 years old. Furthermore, 25% of the child population is suffering from chronic malnutrition, and in some regions like Matagalpa this figure rises to 50%. According to Juan Aguilar, the country's UNICEF representative, all these figures are unfortunately on the rise.

The gravity of the situation means most of the international NGOs are present in Nicaragua, seven of them are French, some deserve a special mention: Echange and Solidarité 44 is one of the most discreet and efficient (see text box). Tourism could be one of the solutions for development, because as well as the lakes, the country boasts numerous beaches along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Also, for nature lovers, there is a rich and varied source of flora and fauna, which is still reasonably unspoilt.

A few figures

  • monthly wages: worker: 60 €, teacher: 70 €, daily farm worker: 1,80 €
  • diesel: 0,60 €/l.
  • honey (retail): 2,45 €/kg
  • empty hive: 8 to 10 €
  • hive with 2 brood boxes ready to produce: 80 €
  • 1 kg of sugar: 0,30 €
  • 1 kg of wax (block): 2,80 €
  • 1 sheet of foundation: 1 € (laminating 0,1 €/sheet)

The local bee was kept long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the XVI century. For the indigenous people, the bee symbolises the sunlight. A magnificent sculpture of this can be admired near Managua in the Laguna Asososca. This sculpture represents a bee placed next to the famous feathered snake Quetzalcoatl. The honey produced by local bees, known as "jicote" (Melipone beecheï) and (Trigona) was considered the medical product par excellence. It came from swarms collected in the forest but also from traditional hives in which these tiny stingless bees were raised. Today, unlike in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela, this adorable bee is used very little in Nicaragua, but new interest needs to be shown due to all the advantages it offers as shown by the following popular saying :

"Sacristan que tiene cera y no cultiva abejas se la saco de la oreja o se la robo del panal."
"A sacristan who has wax but no hives, either gets it from his ears or steals it from the honeybees' comb".
Insects are very much a part of the country's folk tradition. For example, to prevent bad luck from entering a house, a nest of 'saltecon' (trigona species) is placed over the front door.

Nevertheless, two types of honey are offered for sale by hawkers in the streets of the capital Managua. One comes from conventional Africanized(1) bees and the other from "jicotes". The second type is usually more expensive, because of its rarity and renown as having greater medicinal virtues. It is used to cure conjunctivitis by putting a few drops of honey directly into the eye. In some regions of the country, mothers rub a cloth impregnated with honey on their baby's tongue to get rid of parasites in the mouth. In other regions, new mothers "purify their blood" just after giving birth, by drinking large amounts of herbal tea made from "jinocuago" bark and sweetened generously with "jicote" honey.

The beautiful ladies in the capital follow the tradition of using a beauty mask made of "jicote" honey mixed with powdered milk. The mask is applied to the face and left for an hour. A more rural but none the less interesting use consists of getting a young horse to take the bit willingly by smearing it with honey.

The Africanized bee...
The first European bees were introduced into the Pacific coastal region in the XIX century by German settlers. They were coffee producers and wanted to increase production by improving pollination. The development of rationalized beekeeping came later during the sixties boosted by a national agricultural program which included a beekeeping section. In 1980, the Canadian government also collaborated in beekeeping development through the presence of the NGO "CARE". However in 1984, the arrival of the first swarms of AHBs(1) from the south radically changed beekeeping methods and work habits. Beekeepers had to adapt to this new bee, which was the result of crossbreeding (see text box), and much more aggressive than the European bee.

The Africanised bee (AHB) Apis mellifera scutellata was introduced into Brazil by mistake in 1957 where it proceeded to crossbreed with the Creole bee Apis mellifera mellifera. Little by little, this crossbreed took over from the Creole bees. The large number of swarms produced by these bees meant the AHB rapidly progressed northwards. Today, the AHB is even found in southern USA. But the fact that it does not adapt well to harsh climatic conditions should prevent it from moving any further North. Neither is it present in the southern part of the continent in countries such as Chilli and Argentina.

An AHB queen

A smoker sized to match the AHB's aggressiveness

Traditionally, hives were kept close to houses or in the garden amid the hens and pigs, but, with the new crossbred bees, they had to be moved to a safe distance and the size of smokers doubled. Strangely enough, after the initial adaptation period, even if the number of beekeepers has fallen slightly, the number of hives has on the other hand increased. The most surprising result has been the notable increase in honey production per hive: from 10 kg per year prior to the advent of the AHB to 30 kg a year at the moment. In the central region of Boaco, or to the north of Chinandega, production has even reached 75 kg for well-managed hives.

Four years after the arrival of the AHB, the toll was already heavy, 19 people had been killed by bee stings. Most of the victims were local farmers who had gone to collect honey from wild colonies, as they had always done with the Creole bee (C. Rodriguez). As long as beekeepers protect themselves well and are equipped with adequate smokers, beekeeping remains viable. If the AHB has a few shortcomings such as aggressiveness and desertion, it also has many qualities. 

As well as being a good producer, it is above all strongly resistant to brood diseases. The cleaning test, favoured by bee and queen breeders, demonstrates that AHBs get rid of 98% of brood killed by freezing after 24 hours. As a result, beekeepers are not required to treat against any diseases apart from varroasis. These bees are slightly smaller than European ones but adapt well to hives with frames. The distance between the axis of the frames needs to be a little smaller, i.e. 31.8 mm instead of 34.9 for the European bee. Their workers' cells measure 4.8 mm whereas the diameter of European workers' cells is 5.3 mm. Curiously enough, the size of queen and drone cells is identical for both breeds.

Despite the AHB's aggressive behaviour, theft is still the most serious concern faced by beekeepers. This problem is continuing to grow and makes beekeeping difficult especially during the production season. Theft usually takes place during the night: the hive is knocked over and the frames full of honey are taken away. Sometimes the whole hive is stolen. So, beekeepers need to keep watch in an organised manner to protect their hives.

Abundant vegetation
The entire tropical region of Central America has an enormous number and variety of endemic flowers. The country is divided into three zones: dry, semi-humid and humid.

The amount of nectar and pollen gathered by the bees over a 10 month period depends on the region. June and July are the rainy season. Beekeepers sometimes have to feed up to 5 kg of sugar per colony. This is due to one of the characteristics of the AHB, it tends to abscond when the stores run low. It has to be admitted that most of the beekeepers in the country make the mistake of not leaving enough honey when they harvest, and then blame varroa for winter losses when in fact the bees have absconded.

Main honey-flow plants

  • Cambray (Cosmos sulphureus)
  • Flor amarilla (Baltimora recta)
  • Campanilla (Rivea corymbosa)
  • Campanita (Ipomea triloba, Iipomea pes-caprea, Ipomea crassicaulis, Ipomea tiliacea)
  • Eucalyptus
  • Cortez (Tabebuia chrysantha)
  • Lipia (Lippia virgata)
  • Salamo o madrono (Calycophyllum candidissimum)

The great variety of nectar-giving plants results in a light coloured pleasant tasting honey that very rarely crystallizes. Only a few honeys from the North-West region end up by crystallizing.

It is difficult to know how many colonies benefit from this manna. The national beekeeping association has put forward the figure of 25,000 hives. But the country's potential nectar-flows would allow for ten times this number of hives.

Organic honey
Nicaragua has very little area under extensive crops requiring insecticide spraying. What is more, the farming community does not have enough money to buy herbicides. As a result, beekeepers prepared to respect a few rules of apiary management can easily produce organic honey. The next concern of Nicaraguan beekeepers after theft is varroa. At the moment, the parasite seems to be under control due to the use of thymol crystals. Two applications a year of 200 g per colony keep varroa at bay. The treatment consists of evaporation of the melted crystals which are put in a simple metal lid placed on the bottom board of the hive during June and September. There are not really any other constraints for organic beekeepers, keeping in mind that everyone recycles their own wax and makes their own foundation at the cooperative. It goes without saying that the interior of hives made out of wood from the "pochote" (Bombax ellipticum) tree should not be painted. Producers interested in the export market cannot feed with sugar. The collection centre in Boaco, APIBO, is situated in the middle of the country and allows avant-garde beekeepers to market their organic honey without any difficulty at reasonable price (around 2 € per kilo). 

Italian organic honey label

Most of this honey is exported to Italy and Germany. Each producer has to provide a minimum of 300 kg (44 gal drum) so that the beekeeper responsible for production can be identified if there is a problem and to ensure traceability of the product from Europe. As well as providing a guaranteed market, this collection centre allows its 53 members to purchase thymol and other equipment. They have access to technical advice, and can also extract their honey and make their own wax foundation there. During the year 2002, APIBO exported 6 containers each containing 70 drums of organic honey, and sold 15 tons of ordinary honey on the local market.

"Jicote" or melipone bees.This large family of stingless bees, endemic throughout the continent's tropical zone, produces a highly appreciated honey. It was the only bee exploited during the pre-Hispanic era but was later neglected in favour of the more productive European bee. Even if the "jicote" produces less honey (5 kg / colony), it requires no sanitary treatment and even better does not sting. Its honey sells for three times the price of ordinary honey in some regions, especially during Holy week, which, due to tradition, is one of the periods when it is used in greater quantities. However, since the arrival of the AHB and the varroa mite, new interest has been shown in rearing these stingless bees (photo 5). The little wooden boxes used to house them can be kept near houses. Children can take their first steps as future bee breeders by harvesting the honey twice a year. Although this honey is highly scented, it has a higher moisture content than AHB honey, up to 34% compared to 18%.

A beekeeper's story
"We work 400 hives in the Chinandega region along the Honduras border. Our breeding technique consists of capturing wild AHB swarms. We put three brood boxes in the same place strung up between 2 and 5 metres from the ground. Each contains 9 frames of foundation and one of old honeycomb. We check them every five days and once a hive is full, we lower it to the ground without disturbing it, otherwise the bees will abscond.When a group of forty are ready, we move them to form an apiary. Two months later, we kill all the queens to induce the bees to rear young ones which will be less inclined to swarm.In a week the first brood box is drawn out and we add a super. Unless there are climatic problems, 17 days afterwards, this second box is full. With two harvests a year, we average 65 kg of honey per hive." Holman Alexis Lagos Morales (Beekeeper).

Lucia harvesting melipone honey

Melipone brood with its queen in the centre

E.S. 44 stands for exchange and solidarity (échanges et solidarité de Loire-Atlantique).This association which has been active for 14 years has done some remarkable work, especially in Nicaragua. E.S.44 is made up of 3000 voluntary members, most of them retired farmers. It gathers funds by collecting scrap iron and every August organises the well-known Gruellau festival north of Nantes. With an annual budget of 101,162 € (2001 figures) it is able to help 6 sustainable development projects in Nicaragua including one for beekeeping in cooperation with the production co-operative in Baguas, Albisuris. Advised by W. Ploeckl, a beekeeper from Nantes, the 11 members own 170 hives and sell their honey to the APIBO co-op in Boaco. E.S.44 takes care of training and helps with beekeeping equipment, this is all undertaken in the right spirit, well managed and with a respect for the local population that many NGOs would do well to imitate. Malika Rabia, the permanent representative in Managua, organises, supports and follows up the various stages of the development project with a great deal of competence. 

Training given by E.S.44 in Baguas.
Vicente with his queen-rearing frame

A beekeeper's testimony
"I do migratory beekeeping in the 'campanilla' once a year. As I don't have transport, I hire a small truck with a driver to take me 40 km, near Boaco. It costs me 37 € per trip, but in 2 months I produce up to 40 kg per hive. The land where I put my hives is watched over by the owner and costs me 34 €." Dimas Perez (Beekeeper and president of Albisuris)

Beekeeping is indisputably a highly lucrative alternative for numerous small farmers in Nicaragua. The environment is suitable for producing the kind of quality and even organic honey (without using antibiotics) which is so lacking on the international market. Investment in beekeeping remains greatly inferior to all other areas of agricultural production. Concerning the aggressive nature of the AHB, the solution of selective breeding for gentleness is preferable to importing European bees. Neither must we forget the local stingless bees, "melipones". Even though they produce a lot less than European bees, they offer the definite advantage of being quite happy in a simple wooden box without any frames, and do not require any anti-varroa treatment. What is more, children can learn how to handle insects and sell the few kilos of honey produced for two or three times as much as AHB honey.

(1)AHB = Africanized Honey Bee

Further reading

  • Aguilar Juan - 2003 "La Prensa" du 31/01.
  • Dario Espina Perez et Gonzalo S. Ordetx - 1984, Apicultura Tropical, editorial tecnologia de Costa Rica.
  • Rodriguez Conchita - 1993 Vida Apicola N°. 59.
  • Wood Carol - 2000 Guide Ulysse Nicaragua.