I was privileged to receive an invitation to attend the Brazilian Beekeeping Congress, which was held November 14-17, 2000 in Florianópolis , Santa Catarina State, southeastern Brazil. The theme of this year’s meeting was pollination, agriculture and biodiversity. The organizers asked me to talk about increasing honey production in colonies in Brazil. This is an interesting topic, but one I was really not qualified to discuss, not being a beekeeper from that part of the world.
As I thought about this subject, however, it dawned on me that beekeepers all around the world have always asked how they might increase the honey bee’s productivity, generally measured in honey yield. Giving specific counsel is often hard to do; the bees are already pretty good at this, having millions of years of experience built into their genetic code. And in fact honey production per colony has been generally on the upswing in the United States and elsewhere over the years.
The core issue is that the beekeeper’s and not the bees’ productivity is where the emphasis should go to improve an outfit’s overall performance. Fortunately, apiculturists can take a page out of the book of many other agricultural activities that are reinventing themselves in the 21st century. This invariably means working smarter, not harder to increase both productivity and profitability by taking advantages of new forces and technologies in the modern agribusiness environment. At the same time, beekeepers should not forget their principal role, to help honey bees better use their built-in genetic mechanisms that have helped these insects weather the forces of nature for millennia.
An article in the March 25, 2000 issue of The Economist comes to mind. Mr. Shereen El Feki has written a superb piece that emphasizes many key issues affecting agriculture, and by implication, apiculture. Agriculture, according to Mr. El Feki, is one of the world’s largest industries, employing 1.3 billion people and producing $1.3 trillion worth of goods each year. Production per head has gone up 25 percent over the last 40 years. Food prices have fallen by two-fifths. Rich consumers in the United States spend only 14% of their income on food. Modern agriculture is shaped by many of the same technologies transforming other industries, but is subject to unique constraints. It is expected to produce an abundance of cheap food, but at the same time take account of environmental concerns and look after rural landscapes and the welfare of animals, as well as health of consumers.
Agribusiness, a relatively new term coined in the 1950s, used to be an orderly chain of companies and institutions, Mr. El Feki says, stretching from input supply (seeds, fertilizer, etc.) to food processors and retailers. Family farms were integral to the process. But global competition and new technologies are developing new relationships, transforming this chain into a more complex web. Farming in rich countries is moving from bulk-commodity industry to “boutique agriculture,” which produces highly specialized products. This is the idea behind what some have called the “end of agriculture” in the United States, which probably simply means a transformed activity that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the agriculture of old, including beekeeping. Consumers are becoming more demanding as well, and companies are consolidating in pursuit of new efficiencies and economies of scale. The trend is most obvious, Mr. El Feki concludes, at both ends of the food chain: seeds and supermarkets.
Given the circumstances above, the beekeeper too can now analyze his or her operation to take advantage of the new agribusiness environment. This fits into what is being called the “futuring process,” which includes a discovery phase characterized by generally using information from outside one’s field. An example of this is employing ideas generated from the NASA space program to enhance apicultural productivity. The following are some possibilities for beekeepers to consider:
1. Produce and sell other products and services besides honey: This is perhaps one of the most important mindsets that can be changed in apiculture. Other products can be more profitable as they don’t fit into the bulk-commodity category where there is a lot of competition. These include beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and even venom. New product research may reveal some interesting options in the future. Mr. El Feki mentions vaccines from genetically modified potatoes, therapeutic proteins from goat’s milk and plastics from maize among others. The challenge here is to take a close look at one’s operation and find those areas of most profit potential that are not being utilized. This includes examining the marketplace as well as the production mechanism and costs. Services, too, can be part of the mix, especially pollination. Many of these variables can be put into decision-making models providing a more objective set of possible options.
2. If honey is to be produced and sold , determine how specialty varieties and certain types can increase profit potential: These honeys include unifloral sources, sweets with special qualities (exotic flavors, antioxidant or medicinal properties). These are the “boutique” products Mr. El Feki discusses. An important point, however, with these and most products and services is that we are in an age where information is the currency. Thus, products are only as valuable as the information they convey to the consume.
A prime example of this is the “organic” label. The world market in organic produce is growing steadily, according to Mr. El Feki, and expected to reach $20 billion this year. What information the organic label is to bear is one of the most intriguing and frustrating issues facing regulators. The bottom line may be to simply state what one means by organic on the label, rather than waiting for official regulations on the issue. For example, according to the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), “organic produce is the end-product of an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” There’s no reason honey can’t be part of this organic movement.
3. Pricing the product is as important as producing it: Beekeepers cannot set world honey market prices, even though they have been able to influence them by legislative action on occasion. These kinds of actions can cause dislocations, however, that may destabilize the market and possibly the industry. Prices at the local level, however, are a different story. Thus, the general advice for beekeepers to concentrate on opportunities found in the local market place is well founded. This is particularly true in developing nations, where often the first idea that comes to mind to export honey is misguided, as domestic demand is often much stronger, resulting in higher prices at home .
This may also be true in regional markets of affluent nations. There is some reason to believe, for example, that sale of adulterated product in the United States has proliferated in areas where the authentic honey is not available . Pricing is an art, and there is evidence that prices now no longer reflect true production costs, given supermarket consolidation, but are instead customer “value-based.” The general rule, therefore, is when in doubt, to mark up the price on specialty products. This trend can be seen in everything from luxury cars to cruise line packages. Beekeepers have all too often gone in the other direction to their detriment.
4. Deploy value-added products in the marketplace. Beyond specialty honey types and other traditional bee products, those with value-added characteristics can be examined. The range of these products in beekeeping is enormous as described in an on-line book published by the Food and Agricultral Organization of the United Nations in Rome on Value-Added Products.
The National Honey Board has been a leader in this activity over the years and continues to expand its effort in helping food technologists develop products that use honey. These include potato chips, spreads, meats, drinks and others One example outside the food chain is the recent interest in medicinal honey, most notably Manuka honey from New Zealand.
Value-added products are an important part of the vertical integration of any beekeeping outfit. Vertical integration, again part of the Manuka honey story, is also something being employed by larger agricultural concerns. It allows companies to match technological developments upstream to consumer demand downstream, according to Mr. El Feki. It also helps companies control hygiene more rigorously, something, beekeepers may also turn to their advantage. Small-scale vertical integration is perhaps best illustrated in beekeeping outfits in Europe. French beekeepers routinely promote their own product and sell not only honey, but mead, nougat and spice bread made with their honey. They are also banding together in regional efforts to promote their products and services, most notably pollination.
5. Use contracts and cooperatives to reduce risk: There is no formal futures market in honey or other bee products, but risk can be examined and minimized in a number of ways. Forward contracting is certainly possible on a small scale for beekeepers, especially since some bee products can be stored for relatively long periods inexpensively. Many farmers like contracting, Mr. El Feki says, because it pays well and reduces risk. For young producers and those in poorer countries it can offer both capital (credit) and access to new technology. This also can help timing production and supply, although Mr. El Feki doesn’t see “just-in-time” agribusiness anytime soon. Among those who don’t want to get out of farming, many are turning to the time-honored cooperative for help, according to Mr. El Feki. These organizations fell out of favor for a while, but are now reinventing themselves as vertically integrated production-to-processing operations. Their advantage over private companies, Mr. El Feki concludes, is they offer farmers a greater stake in the business by harnessing their loyalty.
6. Take advantage of the Internet and other digital technologies: The World Wide Web, according to Mr. El Feki, offers a way for many small-scale producers to become connected in a number of ways to suppliers and customers never before available. It also offers a way to get research information quickly and reliably, something larger operations pay for through use of professional consultants. So-called “agr-e-business” could be responsible for 10 percent of the world’s $4 trillion agricultural commerce as early as 2004, Mr. El Feki concludes, quoting from figures provided by Rabobank. We can expect to see a proliferation of portals in many languages as part of this movement. Other technologies include computer monitoring of everything from water to nutrient applications. Mr. El Feki discusses one company that markets programs to check the vital signs for plants. Others using similar technologies include Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk and colleagues with their computerized observation hives, and Mr. Claude Ivert, a beekeeper living in Puyricard, just outside Aix-en-Provence in southern France who is actively monitoring his hives electronically, and Arnia, perhaps the present “gold standard” in remote hive monitoring.
Another manifestation of digital technology is what is called “precision agriculture.” A main feature of this is digital mapping using global positioning satellites or GPS. Precision agriculture, however, comes in many forms, according to Mr. El Feki. Some is the stuff of NASA, implemented as Project Common Sensing, a joint project designed to educate the farm community on the realities of remote sensing for agriculture.
7. Monitor new technologies: These include things like the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and integrated pest management or IPM. Already the latter is part of the beekeeper’s arsenal against the dreaded Varroa mite. It uses a range of control measures, including both chemical and physical techniques. There continue to be questions about GMOs and their effects on everything from human consumers to honey bees that forage on them. However, the tendency to pit the defenders of the technology against the champions of nature, as if there is only one road to increased agricultural productivity and sustainability, is “clearly nonsense,” Mr. El Feki concludes. Other new technologies may be found by examining allied areas, for example, the use of near infra-red spectometry (NIRS) in poultry feed might be used to analyze protein in bee food (pollen).
8. Exploit the honey bee’s genetic and protective mechanisms already in place: Genetically engineering the honey bee using modern molecular biology techniques is a long way off. However, the insect has many built-in features that can be taken advantage of to help increase productivity and avoid problems. One is hygienic behavior, something a good deal is known about, but not being employed extensively by beekeepers. Besides this trait, bees have others that protect them. Specific recommendations that assist beekeepers in keeping healthy bees using these characteristics have not changed much over time:
A. Select and breed bees that have the necessary defense mechanisms already in place. Regular re-queening with locally-selected stock is key. In the vast majority of cases, it is important to recognize that bringing in stock from elsewhere is a prescription not only for failure, but in many cases disaster.
B. Ensure the environment provides enough of the right food for bees. If not, then the beekeeper must feed both carbohydrate (sugar) and protein (pollen substitute/supplement). Beyond protein and carbohydrate, good locations must also provide all-important clean, fresh water for bee colonies.
C. Determine the beehive is the right size with reference to colony size and management practices. Establishing artificial swarms and/or making splits that build new combs and uniting young colonies with older ones established the year before ensure rotation of bees and wax. Routinely replacing old combs is something every beekeeper should consider. This is especially important considering how colonies over time can bioaccumulate all kinds of environmental contaminants.
A recent concept is the idea that changing the bees’ cell size through appropriate technology (adjusting foundation cell size) may help the insect in several ways. This is highly controversial at the moment, but is another example of the possible use of the honey bee’s own genetic code.
D. Reduce stress on colonies. There is evidence that extensive manipulation and moving colonies, especially now with chronic use of pesticides in North America are all pushing colonies to their limit.
E. Keep bees without using drugs. Medical treatment of a colony will interfere with the natural defense mechanisms discussed above. This is especially true for antibiotics, which cannot eradicate infections, but only mask symptoms, leading to sometimes huge reservoirs of disease ready to break out at any moment. It is now becoming more apparent that chemical treatment for Varroa and effects of many other pesticides in the environment are contributing to a less-than-healthy honey bee population.
Many of the above concepts, of course, are used by default in countries which don’t have the many resources to put into beekeeping. The advent of the Africanized bee in the American tropics, with its superior adaptation to that kind of climate, has shown that leaving the bees to their own devices will often result in improved productivity. The only wild card in the mix may be the Varroa mite, a pest for which many honey bees simply have no innate defense. Even this parasite, however, is tolerated by certain honey bee populations.
9. Realize that there is no single solution to resolve the productivity issue: As Mr. El Feki says, “In farming, there is no single way to salvation. Different circumstances will require a combination of different tools.” This goes doubly for beekeeping, where many of the necessary inputs cannot be controlled as in other branches of agriculture. What farmers want, Mr. El Feki says, are not solutions imposed by government ministries, but a way of harnessing their experience and initiative to come up with local solutions, which need not be fancy. As an example, he gives the case of Mongolian cattle herders whose cattle were mating at the wrong time. Foreign-aid agencies suggested artificial insemination, but semen was hard to collect and did not store well. Farming practices elsewhere, however, provided the answer; forked sticks around bulls’ necks to keep them off females. Innovation, Mr. El feki says can take many forms; agriculture, he concludes, cannot afford to ignore any of them. This goes double for the art and science of beekeeping.