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NAVAJAS (Cuba): A beekeeper collects honeycombs from a frame at an apiary.—AFP
NAVAJAS (Cuba): A beekeeper collects honeycombs from a frame at an apiary.—AFP

IN the floral valleys of Cuba’s Matanzas province, old fashioned farming means bees can swarm without the threat of pesticides that have decimated populations across the world. “The bee is made neither for urban areas nor rural areas. It is made for the mountains,” says Rogelio Marcelo Fundora, surveying a lush mountain valley east of Havana where his bees are thriving. Fundora, 51, is a mechanical engineer by trade. His 54-year-old brother Santiago Esteban is a teacher. But both have become Cuba’s best-known beekeepers by passion, owning 600 hives in the valley.

Shrinking bee populations around the world have caused scientists and conservationists to sound the alarm over the effects of intensive agriculture, disease and pesticides. But not in Cuba, a Communist-run island nation that has become a kind of apicultural paradise, thanks to the purity of its countryside. That environmental integrity dates back to Cuba’s crippling economic crisis of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which once provided the island with thousands of tonnes of pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides. Deprived of that support, Cuba had no choice but to develop natural alternatives. In the process, it reduced to almost zero the use of chemicals, so harmful to bee populations and the quality of their honey.

Average production is 51kgs of honey per hive, a level considered high. However, the Fundora brothers, considered the nation’s beekeeper kings, show yields of up to 160kgs of honey per hive — triple the national average. The beekeepers’ success means organic honey has joined rum and cigars as one of Cuba’s quality exports. The island produced 8,834 tonnes of honey in 2018, 1,500 tonnes more than the target set by Apicuba, the Cuban Beekeeping Company. There’s still some way to go to catch Argentina, however. Latin America’s leading producer brought 76,000 tonnes to the market in 2017, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization figures. Of the total, around 1,900 tonnes of Cuba’s honey have been certified as organic honey, a “national record” said Dayron Alvarez, the director of technology and development at Apicuba. Almost every drop is exported, with Germany, France, Spain, Britain and Switzerland the main markets worth $18 million in 2017.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2019