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Overcoming the hurdles

Efforts to control Varroa are a worldwide priority, especially as heavy infestations of these parasitic mites render bees vulnerable to secondary viral diseases. However, for many developing countries Varroa is not the main or only obstacle that has to be overcome. War, pests and diseases, climatic extremes and lack of beekeeping knowledge are just a few of the constraints that beekeepers in several developing regions (Iraq, India and Mexico) have had to deal with in recent years.


Iraqi beekeeper with healthy bees
credit FAO

War and disease have resulted in the devastation of Iraq's once high numbers of honeybees. Although Varroa wiped out over 90% of the honeybee colonies in 1987, most remaining hives were destroyed as a result of activities during the Gulf War. In a region struggling to fight off widespread malnutrition, the contribution of bees to food production through pollination and nutrition from honey production is critical. Emergency aid was consequently provided to fund a project to help Iraqi beekeepers restore honeybee populations, establish sustainable beekeeping techniques and, in particular, provide knowledge of adequate hygiene practices in order to avoid the incidence of disease in the absence of available chemical control. But the appearance of a new disease in Iraq, first reported in early 1994, severely threatened the promising progress made by beekeepers in re-establishing their colonies. The phenomenon, known as 'crawling bees', is believed to be caused by secondary viral or other infections, resulting in severe weakening of bees and loss of honey production. Further assistance is currently being provided to teach beekeepers more about bee diseases and to establish a diagnostic laboratory in Baghdad.


Extension agent, Karnataka
credit: FAO

Vietnamese experience in managing Thai sacbrood virus (TSBV) has helped to restore indigenous Apis cerana bee colonies, which were decimated in the southern Indian state of Karnataka - a previously big producer of honey. Although European bees, resistant to TSBV, had been successfully introduced in northern India, it was decided that introduction of this exotic breed to the southern state could aggravate problems by bringing in new diseases which could threaten local indigenous bee species. European bees are economically viable only when kept on a large scale and this is not appropriate for the landless beekeepers of Karnataka. In addition, those beekeepers that attempted to keep Apis mellifera colonies found that they did not thrive and, during the rains, that the bees did not leave the hives at all. A project to promote beekeeping and honey hunting in the region provided support to strengthen extension services in managing A. cerana, how to use queen rearing to multiply colonies, methods of controlling TSBV and how to generate maximum income from the bee products.


Mexican women inspecting hives
credit: Katherine Pasteur

In Central and Southern America, climatic conditions as a result of El Nino and La Nina over the past few years have had an impact on many beekeepers. In some regions severe drought, followed by excessive rains, have devastated colonies. The Yucatan peninsula, which produces two-thirds of Mexico's honey supply, was particularly affected by the excessive rainfall triggered by Hurricane Mitch in September 1998 resulting in the failure of two successive crops. The hurricane also led to the spread of the more aggressive African Apis mellifera bees, which had been introduced for their pollination qualities although they have recently become more socialized as they have spread and mated with native Mexican bees. Slash and burn agriculture, as the typical means of production in the region, is also diminishing forest resources which are ideal for apiculture. However, in the Biosphere Reserve of Calakmul in the south of the Yucatan Peninsula, bordering on Belize and Guatemala, over 700,000 hectares of tropical forest are protected. The mix of forest species provides a diverse range of melliferous plant species that flower throughout the year but, until relatively recently, the forest resources had not been exploited for this purpose because the predominant immigrant population had no beekeeping tradition. A conservation NGO, Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, began supporting beekeepers in the 1991 and, by 1998, there were over 200 beekeepers working in the reserve. At this time all the beekeepers were men but, in the last few years, training and support has been provided to groups of women interested in learning beekeeping skills. Despite setbacks, including the loss of colonies due to attacks of ants, disease, swarming and the arrival of Varroa in the region, beekeepers are making candles, sweets and medicinal products, as well as honey. They have also begun to specialize in the production of veils to sell, and even export, to other beekeepers.

Further information:
Bees in Development
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