14ymedio, Ricardo Fernández, Camaguey, 20 December 2017 — Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) lives up to its name by being in an out-of-the-way spot 40 kilometers from the town of Vertientes, in Camagüey. The small settlement of houses with a palm leaf roofs has its greatest treasure in the surrounding beehives, but this year the production of the honeybees suffered a major setback and the residents are facing economic hardship.
The Camaguey fields were expected to produce 700 tons of honey this year. However, the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, the problems in accessing inputs and non-payments to producers have meant that only 490 tons have been collected. The national production, which this year, according to the official press, was forcast to be 10,000 tons, will also fall below that figure.
Ciudad Perdida has suffered a severe blow with this drop in production since most families depend on the product from the apiaries, as the groups of productive hives are called. This situation extends throughout the center of the island, the area most affected by hurricane winds and rains.
With 2,800 beekeepers throughout the country and about 180,000 beehives in operation, obtaining honey has been encouraged in recent years due to the favorable prices the State obtains when selling it in the international market, especially when it exports varieties obtained organically.
Some 90% of the honey produced in Cuban fields is exported to Europe, mainly to Germany, Holland, Spain and Switzerland, while the rest goes to the national market and the tourism sector.
Foreign trade is a state monopoly, but production is mostly carried out by beekeepers associated with cooperatives. Before leaving the island, the sweet product must trod a bitter bureaucratic path, marked by the lack of inputs, low producer purchase prices and late payments.
Any private beekeeper with more than 25 beehives is obliged to join a cooperative to deliver their honey to the State and may only keep enough for home consumption. The fruit of the work of the hardworking bees goes through the Provincial Apiculture Company, from where it is sent to CubaExport, which is responsible for its export.
“The only thing the cooperative does is to be an intermediary because we do not have legal standing to sell the honey and buy the supplies,” complains Manuel, a beekeeper from Ciudad Perdida who has been in business for more than a decade and who has chosen a fictitious name to avoid retaliation. “The payments take months and the resources we requested never arrive,” he laments.
Beekeepers are lonely people, accustomed to going into the bush to care for their hives and always attentive to the slightest signs of fatigue, disease or vandalism shown by their populations of insects. They zealously take care of their “girls,” as some call them, since they know how fragile they are in the face of inclement weather, illness and abandonment.
The work is hard and meticulous. “I’ve gotten used to being stung, but from time to time a huge swarm comes at me and they scare me, they still scare me,” says Roberto, another beekeeper from the Najasa area who inherited his father’s occupation. “I have a lot of time to think when I do this work and sometimes even sing, although lately I do not have much reason to sing,” he says.
The massive death of swarms in recent months has Camaguey beekeepers desperate. The ravages of the drought were followed by the strong winds of Hurricane Irma, which significantly affected the flowering of the so-called “Indian vine,” one of the main sources of nectar for bees in the territory of Camagüey. Without food, “the bees fall like flies,” Roberto says.
“This has been a bad year,” adds his colleague Manuel, speaking to 14ymedio. “I have lost 50% of my swarms and I am not one of the worst cases. I have a friend who had 42 hives and today he only has nine.”
Diseases have also played their part, especially the Varroa mite that parasitizes bees and ends up decimating their populations. When the mite takes over a hive, beekeepers can barely do anything more than watch the workers die one by one, until the queen finally perishes. There is also another hypothesis that points to a fungicide as a possible cause of the disease.
“We cannot provide producers with medicines and vitamins because organic honey has twice the price on the world market,” an official of the Provincial Apiculture Company of Camagüey clarifies to this newspaper. The state entity must ensure that they do not add chemicals to the process, because without them the profits are much greater.
However, the prices paid to the producer hardly vary, regardless of inclement weather or fluctuations of the value of honey on the international market, a situation that some have begun to denounce, especially after the added expenses this year associated with responding to weather problems and pests.
“They pay us when and how the company wants,” explains a beekeeper who declined to join the cooperative and sells his honey through a friend who is a member. “This year, for a ton of honey we are paid 14,000 CUP (equivalent to about 460 euros or 560 dollars) but we all know that the price has gone up in the world market.”
In 2016-2017, the price of bulk honey in reached 4,180 euros per ton in Spain, and organic honey, of the multifloral variety, around 12,000 euros (about 14,000 dollars), according to data from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. The profits obtained by the Cuban State when buying at low prices from domestic producers and selling at high prices in the international market are increasingly questioned.
“The inputs are expensive and do not come or when they do come are not complete, and then the work is greater and the profit decreases,” laments another producer from Ciudad Perdida. “The refractometer to check the density of honey costs 400 CUP, the boxes to assemble the beehives are 65 each and never less than 45, the trays that go in the interior cost 4 each and I need about 100 of them,” details the beekeeper.
“With all that you need 1,050 CUP to build a hive and you have to pay 50 pesos for each feeder and buy the sugar at 6 pesos a pound to feed the bees,” when the natural food is poor. “I’ve been asking the State for three years to sell me a manual centrifuge to extract the honey, but nothing. Now I’m working on a loan,” he concludes.
To that is added the fact that many times the hives are distant from the producers’ homes. To save the lease payment of tractors or trucks, they usually hitchhike or cycle, but when collecting honey or moving the hives to other sites they must rent a vehicle, which triggers more costs.
Some producers try to make up for their expenses by selling part of their honey in the ’informal market’, but the practice is greatly persecuted by the authorities and they cannot sell wholesale quantities without being discovered. “I am willing to sell under the table but nobody buys my whole crop and with intermediaries it is very risky,” laments Manuel, the beekeeper from Ciudad Perdida.
The only option that the Camagüey beekeepers have at the moment is to trade with the state and cross their fingers so that the winds, the drought and the pests bypass their hives.
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