Honey, a Profitable Profession for Cuban Beekeepers When the State Deigns to Pay Them

The honey producer’s loyalty has to be absolute: he can’t sell in the informal market, nor keep too much honey for his own use. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yankiel Gutiérrez Faife, Camajuaní, 31 Although bee honey is one of the things that has “disappeared” from the Cuban family pantry, the State knows how to sell it abroad, and at very high prices. The purity and quality of the product have earned an international reputation for the Island’s honey, and it’s not uncommon to find it in the supermarkets of Europe and Latin America, with all kinds of packaging that advertises its origin as a sign of superiority.

Beekeeping escapes the usual rules of trade in Cuba. The State pays the farmer for honey at a better price than the informal market. The loyalty of the producer, of course, has to be absolute: he can’t sell in the informal market, nor keep too much honey for his own use. Otherwise, the inspectors can confiscate the equipment, retain the honey and make him pay an exorbitant fine.

“This profession does not take as much effort as dedicating oneself to agriculture,” says Lele, a 56-year-old farmer living in Rosalía, a rural town in Camajuaní, in the province of Villa Clara. “But not everyone has the courage to face the bee stings. To get an assistant, I have to call on several houses looking for someone who wants to work,” he complains.

Lele started as a beekeeper to collaborate with a friend of his. Over time, he acquired nine hives and had an estimated annual production of six to seven tons of honey. Everything must be delivered to the state-owned Cuban Beekeeping Company (Apicuba), which then moves it to the processing plant, evaluates the quality and determines the price.

Almost all beekeepers turn to the State instead of looking for private buyers. “It’s more profitable,” Lele explains. “The producer earns from 35,000 to 40,000 pesos per ton, and, if in Apicuba they consider the honey to be exportable, they pay him an additional 600 MLC (freely convertible currency).”

The “trick” of this added payment is that the producer must pay a “counter-value” for each MLC received. That is, in order to receive the currency you have to deduct from the 35,000 pesos of your payment the equivalent of 600 MLC, but at a favorable exchange rate of 24 pesos, which means earning 14,400 pesos. In sum, for each ton of exportable honey you can get 20,600 pesos and 600 MLC, which Apicuba will transfer to your ’credit’ card.

However, payment is frequently delayed and depends on the distribution of the lots that the State allocates for export. The farmer can deliver a certain amount of honey to Apicuba, but until it is sent abroad he will not receive the full payment.

It’s been more than a month since I paid the MLC’s counter-value to Apicuba for the honey I delivered,” complains Yaniel, a producer from Camagüey. “I know that they already sent the export shipment in September, and my money has not yet appeared on the card. The answer they give me is that it is the bank’s fault. I’m still waiting.”

Many beekeepers also complain about the bureaucracy that they must conquer before receiving their money — sometimes five or six months late. Apicuba requires having the identity card photocopied on both sides, a document that accredits the producer as part of a cooperative, and another copy of the contract signed with the State for the current year.

The farmer goes to work in a cart towed by oxen. He carries his instruments: a centrifuge, smoker, bellows and a tank to collect the honey. Protected by a beekeeping suit, hat and veil, Lele carefully removes the frames from each hive — the squares that the bees fill with honey. He gently removes the bees, takes off the seal (wax layer) and extracts the honey with the help of the centrifuge.

After straining the mixture, he fills the tank and returns the honeycomb to the box. This procedure is repeated with each of the hives. The purity of the final result is remarkable.

From that collection, Apicuba takes care of the rest. The Cuban State, which pays 600 MLC per ton of honey to the producer, sells it on average at more than 4,000 euros per ton to the most avid buyers: Germans, Dutch and Spanish. The price varies depending on whether it is bulk, packaged, monofloral, multifloral or pollen. Some publications have indicated that Cuban honey is sold for 20,000 euros a ton.

However, data from the Ministry of Agriculture of Spain for the 2021-2022 campaign indicate that bulk honey reached 4,620 euros per ton, while the multifloral variant was sold for a maximum of 3,620 euros. The packaged pollen was sold for 12,000 euros. In any case, the disproportion between the profit of the Cuban state and the remuneration of the farmer is enormous.

In the informal market, the sale does not reach the same level. There are few quantities available in MLC, and the one on the street has a presentation that leaves a lot to be desired, not to mention that the honey itself is of unreliable origin.

There are other advantages for the producer, says Lele. The broken and old frames of the hives can be re-used: they are placed in a boiler on the fire, and the wax that melts, once cleaned, is also bought by Apicuba to renew the boxes.

Lele’s bees collect wildflower pollen. Their hives are not sprayed with any chemical, and, when some strange body — such as cockroaches and other intruder insects — is inserted into the boxes, he himself extracts it.

Accepting the conditions of Apicuba is the only way to benefit from the sale of honey abroad, a business whose numbers are increasing, as the prestige of Cuban production grows, says Lele. “We can only keep what’s destined for our own consumption,” he says, “otherwise they can take away our means and our hives.”

But Apicuba, Lele explains, does not offer farmers the necessary resources. He has been using his own for five years, and there is nowhere to find protective equipment, tanks and even a simple mesh to make the veil, indispensable to protect the face from bites.

Leonardo, another beekeeper from Rosalía, is concerned about the incidence of tropical diseases in his bees. Their hives have been decimated by the destructive rogue mite, a species that lives parasitically from bees and exterminates them.

Purity, the first quality criterion for exports, cannot be compromised by drugs. “It does not suit the State,” says Leonardo, “because this would affect the price of Cuban honey in the world market, which greatly values everything that is processed without chemical substances.”

The mite sucks the hemolymph of both larvae and adult bees. It drains their strength and make them custodian of a virus. Then the animal’s body begins to be affected, the wings atrophy and they can’t work. “Then the workers come and end up expelling the sick bee,” Leonardo explains. “They think that one that doesn’t work doesn’t eat, and doesn’t have the right to live either.”

“When this disease enters the hive,” he says, “the only thing that can be done is to observe how the bees are dying little by little. The State is not going to sell us the medicines to cure them. The last thing they want is for us to alter the organic state of the honey.”

Translated by Regina Anavy


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