Honeybees have been a prominent topic in conservation news in recent years and with good cause. Bee populations globally are under threat and without them to pollinate flowers and crops we may not be able to eat the food we love in the future. For instance, crops like blueberries and cherries are 90% dependent on pollination by bees. If honeybees were to disappear completely we could lose the equivalent of one in every three bites of food (www.beesmatter.ca). There is no single cause for the disappearance of honeybees but general scientific opinion is that there are a number of causes for the decline including insecticides and a loss of countryside and green spaces to urban development (www.fastcoexist/honeybees).
For this reason today, the 20th August, is World Honeybee Day, established to raise awareness of the importance of bees. Here in Madagascar bees are also important to sustainable development and even play their part in recycling. Wild honey hunters have, for centuries throughout Madagascar, hunted wild beehives and collected wild honey. There are many ways that this is done. Possibly the most macabre method is that used by tribes in the high plateau. Traditionally these people put the coffins of their dead in trees. Over time bees use the coffins as hives and produce honey in them. The people of the high plateau cannot eat the honey as it is fady (taboo) to do so. Instead they collect the honey and trade it with other groups for essentials (www.prezi.com).
Usually honey is collected by wild honey hunters by finding a wild hive in a hole in a tree, smoking out the bees and placing the queen in a bamboo cage. The hunter can then take the honeycomb and honey. Unfortunately, the bees are not always left alive and therefore the practice is not sustainable. But there are currently a number of NGOs in Madagascar who have looked to the traditional place of honey in Malagasy life and gotten involved in beekeeping projects that are sustainable and are helping to alleviate poverty for beekeeping families. Our sister NGO Honko Mangrove Conservation and Education is one of the NGOs that is teaching and practicing apiculture or beekeeping. In the village of Ambondrolava, where Honko is based, there are currently two households involved in apiculture. Each hive produces approximately 10 litres of honey a year. Honey is sold for 10,000 Ariary per litre and therefore the potential income to the household is 100,000 Ariary per year (approximately £23). This is not a vast amount of money by anyone’s standards but it is a helpful supplement to the income of these households.
Honko also have their own hive on site. They are currently populating the hive and it should be producing honey within a year. Hives are populated by using honeycomb created elsewhere and placing it in the new hive. The hive currently in use at Honko is of quite a complicated design and Honko has plans to begin using Kenyan beehives that are of a much simpler design and easier to extract honey from. The honey is extracted using a machine called an extractor in which the combs are spun, allowing the honey to be collected in a drum.
Honey and beekeeping also helps to deal with the thousands of plastic bottles used in Madagascar every day. Used bottles are refilled with honey and sold in markets and villages throughout the country. Of course, it’s not ideal to reuse plastic bottles containing PEP but it is an awful lot better than the alternative, which is burning all the plastic bottles that have only been used once or throwing them on the ground or in the sea. There is no refuse collection and no recycling points in most of Madagascar and so reusing something is the best way to prevent it becoming waste and very often pollution. Furthermore most people who sell honey probably cannot afford to buy the bottles they need. You often see children asking tourists for their empty bottles and most people touring the country or visiting national parks keep their empty bottles until they come across a group of children who want to recycle them. Please remember to do so if you visit or save them during your trip and drop them off at an NGO before you leave.
Closer to home there are a number of things you can do to help honeybee populations including planting bee-friendly wildflower seeds and allowing dandelions and clover to grow in your garden. Your garden, you and your family will also benefit if you stop using commercial pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are loaded with harmful chemicals that are very damaging to bees. Support local honeybee keepers by buying your honey locally. This not only supports your local economy but supports local beekeepers who tend to be more concerned with the health of their bees than large companies are. And please remember to recycle the container your honey comes in.
Article by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino