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By Katherine Pasteur and Roberto Delgadillo Aguiree, Mexico
A conservation NGO, Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, began supporting beekeepers seven years ago. Now there are over 200 beekeepers working in the reserve. All of these were men. In fact, most beekeepers in Mexico are men. "Why cannot women keep bees?" we asked ourselves. Seeing no reason why not, we offered support to groups of interested women. In this article we share the experiences of these women and encourage others to take up the challenge.
Why promote beekeeping with women?
Much of women's work centres around the home, looking after children, washing, preparing meals and tending home gardens and small livestock. This work rarely earns a cash income and is often not highly valued. Beekeeping offers a challenge to women:
they see it as something interesting to learn and feel a sense of achievement and self-respect, as well as earning respect from other members of the community. The sale of honey, wax and other secondary products earns them a cash income over which they have autonomy.
Aida from the village La Lucha notes: "At first we were afraid because we knew nothing and thought we would not be able to do it, but we got used to it and found it is quite easy to learn. We did not feel as competent as men because we could no go into the forest and clear land because it is heavy work, but working with bees is not heavy or tiring. The boxes are not too heavy for us, in fact it is easier than some other jobs we have to do". Unlike most activities that women have to attend to, beekeeping does not require daily attention, and if the apiary is not too far away or too large, hive inspection does not take long. Inspections are on average made every fortnight, though more frequently in times of scarcity of nectar and pollen when feeding may be necessary.
The groups of women started with a revolving fund with which they bought all the equipment necessary to start keeping bees: veils and gloves: hives with bees; extra boxes; stands to protect the hives from ants; and embossed wax foundation. The fund has to be paid back in the form of cash, honey or other products derived from this activity within two years so that the money can be reinvested in starting more new groups.
The women were given training and support to manage the bees, and to organise themselves into a strong group with a committee. They were also shown how to make maximum use of the products that they harvest: for example making candles from wax; jarring and labelling the honey rather than selling it crude; making sweets and medicines; and making veils to sell to other beekeepers.
Apiculture has provided a relatively stable and sustainable source of income from the forest. Irma from the village La Guadalupe says: "We wanted to work with bees because it is easy and at the same time it is valuable for the products of the bees: the honey is very important. we eat the honey and we like it a lot".
Beekeeping does not require expensive investment and once up and started beekeepers can augment their apiaries "for free" by catching wild swarms and changing the queen. "Before we saw swarms of bees passing and we never caught them because we thought we could not do it." reflects Maria, "now, if someone tells us they have seen a swarm, we know what to do".
One group of six continue working together and have specialised in the production of veils for beekeepers which they sell both within the region and have also exported to beekeeper societies in other States. Another woman specialises in making medicines from traditional products including honey and wax, whilst others sell sweets, candles, and even painted T-shirts with a bee theme.
Juanita says: "We make candles from foundation wax and from pure beeswax decorated with other natural materials such as wood and maize leaves. Some of the honey we sell crude, but to get a better price we also sell some in pots with labels."
Exchange visits between the groups have been organised, as well as visits to meetings of other beekeeping societies to encourage the interchange of ideas and to spread the word about women's new role in beekeeping.
"At first we had problems with our husbands," adds Maria, "because they did not like it if we arrived home late to prepare their food. Some women had to leave the group because of this but in our case our husbands 'came to understand" Sometimes disappointments have to be suffered, for instance all groups have experienced the loss of colonies due to attacks of ants, disease, swarming and the recent arrival of the mite Varroa jacobsoni. However this is a learning experience and preventative measures are now taken.
Given the lack of communications (poor transport, few phone and fax facilities) and lack of experience in this field, it can be hard to sell the bottled honey, veils and candles. Pronatura has acted as an intermediary in the commercialisation process.
However, to ensure the long term sustainability of activities, training is being given in the use of phone and fax, and in making business contacts and sales so that the women themselves can undertake the process.