I have returned from a trip south of Quito to collect honey from colonies in two places called Pastocalle and Lasso in the shadow of one of Ecuador’s most resplendent snow capped peaks, El Cotopaxi. The temperament of the honey bees we visited was exemplary. Between the three of us, we received no more than four stings for a whole day’s work, which included using bee brushes to remove bees from combs of honey before loading them into the car. It gave me pause. Was this really the Africanized honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata)? And if so, why all the fuss about this insect’s defensive behavior? The answer to the first question was yes and reliable reports that deaths of both animals and people have indeed been caused by this unpredictable insect in Ecuador confirm its latter reputation. The source of our luck during this time was that a honey flow was in progress, and on this bright, sunny day the conditions for manipulating colonies could not have been better. It added up to one of the maxims of beekeeping. One can do almost anything while manipulating bees when the conditions are right.
My host was Ingeniero Holk Rührig, a civil engineer of German background, now living in Ecuador. Ing. Rührig is the general manager of Asistencia Apícola Alemana (Apicultural Assistance of Germany), Av. La Gasca 1309, Quito, Ecuador, Tél: 593-02-542-510. His hives are scattered over the highlands (sierra) of Ecuador and his knowledge about beekeeping in the area is legend. Besides honey production, he sells a line of beekeeping equipment. Among other things, Ing. Rührig participated in three-day short course held in Quito at the Pontificia Universidad Cátolica del Ecuador (PUCE) in early August, where he shared some of his knowledge along with my academic host here, Dr. Giovanni Onore. Unfortunately, Mr. Rührig is no longer living, although perhaps his beekeeping supply shop is still in operation.
Dr. Onore showed the participants of the short course his pinned collection of honey bees in the PUCE insect collection, which he says reveals in detail the history of the Ecuadorian Africanization process. Dr. Onore was fortunate to arrive in Ecuador at the same time as the African bee in 1980. He is the student of one of Italy’s legendary apiculture professors at the University of Turin, the late Dr. Carlo Vidano. He had been doing missionary work in Africa as a Marianist Catholic priest and so had firsthand experience with that tropical honey bee in its native land. Dr. Onore said the behavioral shift from European to African was palpable and left little doubt in his mind that Apis mellifera scutellata had invaded. Where it came from remains a mystery. Perhaps it arrived in packages from Colombia or migrated on its own from the Amazon basin over the lowlands of southern Ecuador. In the late 1980s, Dr. Onore was able to see many changes in the local bee population as Africanization took place. A most interesting occurrence was a large incidence of chalkbrood in the sierra, mostly in African drone brood. Over time, this has disappeared. Dr. Onore is now retired from the PUCE and expends most of his energy at the Otonga reserve in the eastern Andean foothills of Ecuador.
The next phenomenon to appear in Ecuador was Varroa in the early 1990s. By this time, almost all honey bees in Ecuador were certifiably Africanized according to Dr. Onore. There is no documentation about where the mite came from, but it quickly spread throughout the country. The effects of Varroa on Ecuador’s honey bee population during that period has not been well document, but few if any chemical treatments were ever used to mitigate the mite’s advance. And this continues today, such that every colony contains some population of Varroa, which in general is well tolerated as is seen in other tropical countries like México and Brazil .
Most of the colonies I saw on this sunny August day were healthy and productive. We took a fine grade of white honey (probably eucalyptus) off most of these hives, but they were quite uneven in population, with some having only a handful of bees while others were powerhouses. The apicultural bottom line in Ecuador is that American foulbrood is not present, Varroa mites are not treated, pesticides are not a problem, and bees do not usually have to be fed. If colonies die out, they are soon replaced by naturally occurring swarms. Market conditions are such that honey here fetches a better price than on the world export market. Because there is no treatment using either antibiotics or pesticides, the opportunity exists to produce certified organic honey for both the domestic and export market.
Ecuador is not without its problems. Two of its volcanoes continue to erupt causing some dislocation. Its infrastructure leaves much to be desired, especially roads that are in bad shape due to large traffic loads and rains from the El Niño phenomenon. There is a significant fiscal crisis here as well. The country defaulted on its Brady bonds; a number of bankers have fled the country, many with depositor’s funds, and inflation was so out of control that the U.S. dollar is now being adopted as the official currency. Finally, the human population has been sensitized to overdefensive African honey bees such that finding locations is difficult.
In spite of the problems, I still think that if Ecuador isn’t a beekeeping paradise, it comes pretty darn close. The big challenge, however, will be to keep it so. There is considerable risk that conditions in the country could radically change due to importation of bees or bee products exposed to American foulbrood or other diseases and pests. It is not known what version of Varroa destructor is here, but a good guess is that it is the Japan/Thailand haplotype, which appears to be much less problematic than its Korean cousin. Any importation of honey bees might possibly result in the introduction of the latter haplotype with possibly devastating consequences.