The Royal Geographical Society believes “bees are the most important animal in the world.” Bees are essential for our survival because they pollinate flowers allowing agriculture and crops to thrive. Without the presence of bees, we would have no food or crops available leading to widespread famine. 84 percent of crops for human consumption require bees to increase their quality and yield. They are essential to maintaining agricultural systems throughout the world. Bees have been on Earth for 40 million years compared to the 1 million years humans have been on Earth. Human actions have dramatically impacted ecosystem, directly affecting many pollinator species.
The energy industry and deforestation are major factors leading to the extinction of bee populations throughout the world. As industries continue to grow and land for agriculture is reduced, the bee populations will be unable to complete their job as pollinators, interrupting the balance within agriculture systems throughout the world. The survival of bees is vital and according to the Ministry of Agriculture in Mexico’s Víctor Villalobos, “Bees are our best allies for food security in the world and to achieve our goals as a country of food self-sufficiency.”
In Mexico there are 1,900 types of bees, and the melipona species is native to the country. In 2019 there were 61,000 tons of honey produced from bees valued at 2.278 billion pesos. The production of honey from bees is a major economic industry in Mexico as well as an important part of the agriculture systems within Mexico.
Mexico is 5th in the world in exporting honey, and the 9th largest producer of honey in the world. Mexico is a major source of bees and honey throughout the world, so it is important that the Mexican government takes important steps in protecting bees.
Currently, the government of Mexico has banned the herbicide glyphosate and other agro-toxins in an effort to help preserve the bee population within the country. These actions have contributed to protecting the bees, but with the current rate of climate change it is imperative more legislation is passed to protect the bees. With over 43,000 beekeeper families in Mexico, the government has a large role in protecting the world’s bee supply.
Besides being essential to agriculture systems, bees also have a strong presence within the culture of Mexico. According to the undersecretary of food self sufficiency in Mexico, Victor Súarez “Bees are the basis of Mesoamerican culture, in particular of the Mayan culture.” Protecting bees from extinction also means protecting a valuable part of Mayan culture within Mexico.
Andrea Figueroa of Miel Nativa Kaban describes the cultural importance of bees,
“The Mayans were the first to start working with the stingless bees thousands of years ago. The Mayas have a sacred relationship to stingless bees. Archaeological sites were built in honor of the Mayan god of the bees. For the Mayas there were four gods that hold the universe in place and one of those gods is bee god. This shows the cultural significance of bees and if you go to a community and talk to the elder, they have Mayan names for every single species of bees.”
Most people know that bees produce honey, but they do not know the difficulties and extensive processes needed to produce a small amount of honey. To produce a kilogram of honey a bee has to visit 4 million flowers. The intricate process to make honey causes the honey industry in Mexico to be competitive and hard to survive in for small businesses. Customers do not understand the long and expensive process required to produce honey, and do not value it as much as they should.
Preserving Mexico’s Bees: Miel Nativa Kaban
Miel Nativa Kaban is a small business located near Mérida, Mexico and they produce honey to create various products. They mainly work with the Melinponi Bechelli species. The Meliponi species is a stingless bee, and their honey has many medicinal qualities to it besides the taste. The owners of Miel Nativa Kaban, Andrea and Rodgrigo use these medicinal qualities to produce products as well as promote the conservation of bees throughout Mexico.
Latina Republic had the opportunity to speak with one of Miel Nativa Kaban’s co-owner, Andrea Figueroa who shared insights on Miel Nativa Kaban’s efforts to protect the bee populations through their business. She also spoke about fair trade and their relationships with consumers. Figueroa also shared tips on what we can do as consumers to protect the bee populations.
When they first decided to create their business, Andrea and Rodrigo noticed a fundamental problem with the bee industry. “We started realizing that as the demand for stingless bee honey was going up, the value chain was being built and they were not adding value,” said Andrea.
“We decided on two main purposes: To connect stingless bee honey producers to fair value chains, understood as fair trade; and to share information regarding bee conservation. Lately, we hear a lot about how bees are super important for the planet and without bees there would be no food or life. When you get into the word of bees, you realize we know very little about bees and how we can protect something we know nothing about. This was our motivation to start the company and work with producers,” Andrea explained.
The three pillars of their business are to learn, contribute, and honor. They focus on understanding how bees operate to better protect them. When first starting their business co-owner Andrea describes, “we realized we could not protect something that we didn’t not know. So the first step was to inform people in every step of the chain; give the producers information they could use to negotiate in terms of equality.”
Andrea further discusses the pillar of learning,
“We believe that without information there cannot be actions for preservation. One of the main pillars from our company is to learn. We need to learn to create value chains and promote fair trade. Learning is a very important part of the project and we try to create spaces for learning. Not only with our clients, but with the producers we work with and all along the value chain. With our clients we have a space in Mérida where we sell our product and we designed this space so that we have a lot of visual elements to educate. You can see huge bees that are 3 centimeters as well as tiny bees. We also have a live hive to help people deconstruct what they think they know about bees and start building from a solid base and understand there is a mega diverse world out there.”
She shared that many of their clients enjoy the way they present learning about bees, “People love learning and getting surprised. When you add emotion, flavors, and all of the senses to create a space for reflection, people actually get to make reflections about their way of consuming and relating to their environment. This is where the true changes come from, not by telling everyone you need to save the bees. If you learn in a fun engaging way then you will want to share it.”
Miel Nativa Kaban focuses on educating the entire consumer chain about bees. From producers to consumers they educate people about the importance of protecting and honoring bees through presentations and information sessions. They noticed a lack of understanding of bees themselves as well as a lack of understanding in the business of producing honey. Many honey producers in Mexico were being undercut by intermediaries causing their business to go bankrupt because their honey was not being valued correctly.
They emphasize the term fair trade in their business which includes correctly valuing bee hives and honey, so producers can continue their business in a sustainable manner. Fair trade was one of the principal ideals in their initial business process. Rodrigo describes,
“By teaming up with other people who also believe in this process of fair business and who also believe in a transformation process, we arrived at the construction of this project.”
Further discussing fair trade, Andrea describes,
“We are working with indigenous groups in many areas and it is very complex to talk about fair trade. Most people think of fair trade as fair payment, but it is not that basic. It is more complex. For example, the producer does not have the same information as the intermediaries to negotiate in terms of equality. The producer needs to understand and know the same things as the intermediary and know about how the market is behaving. This is only one piece. We also have to consider fair trade needs to be sustainable. Environmentally and also in time, it has to be profitable because it is a business and people have to earn a living. However it also has to be sustainable, so we do not use all of the resources. As a consumer we need to know what has to happen for the product to get to us.”
Similarly in their relationships with producer Andrea states, “we choose to work with small producers, individuals that have between 10 to 100 hives which is a small amount. We try to have a close relationship with them in terms of sharing information from the market and what we’re learning about what’s happening in the industry. We want them to share information with us as well in a horizontal relationship. Also having a very transparent and honest relationship with producers is important as well. We try to visit them and be in touch with them regularly. We also work with new producers who are people that want to learn about stingless bees. We lend them hives, so they can start learning and they agree with us on our values. They keep the hives for a year and after the year they can choose to duplicate their hives and keep the ones they duplicate. Buying a hive is expensive, so we avoid them having to get a hive in an un-sustainable manner.”
Education about bee conservation is hard due to the complexity of the problem. Andrea shares, “the current initiatives for bee conservation are not integral. We’re focusing only on one species of bee and even that one bee was not doing the best job to protect. I think a lot of these initiatives are well intentioned but they’re done from the desk. They are not done from the field and from the true understanding of the environment and ecosystem as well as the natural, social, and economic factors. We need to build solutions that come from diverse groups including the experts in bees, the expert in sales, and the expert in deforestation. Complex problems require complex solutions, and you cannot solve complex problems with a small team working from their desks.”
“We’re making a big effort to team up with producers in communities to guarantee fair trade conditions of businesses.” –Rodrigo Co Owner of Miel Nativa Kaban
Although Miel Nativa Kaban has done a lot in educating individuals about the value of honey and fair trade, they believe there is still a long way to go. Rodrigo describes, “One of the biggest challenges that stingless bee honey has is the market. A market that knows and values it.” They believe their business is more than just selling honey. Their business creates local development and positive change throughout Mexico. Andrea believes ,“We do sell honey but it is much more than that. It is a project to generate development in the community to generate opportunities with producers.”
To help us as consumers be more aware in our conservation efforts Andrea recommends, “One thing you can do that has a huge impact is planting native plants from the area that you are from. On social media there are a lot of posts about planting lavender or rosemary, but this is not how our planet works. If you want to help save the bees, do research and find out what plants are native to your region and plant those plants. This is a great way to help bees as well as other insects that are vital as pollinators. Then, you will have a space full of great insects you can watch for hours.”
As climate change continues to affect our world and agriculture systems, the work of local entrepreneurs ,like Andrea and Rodrigo will be even more valuable. Their business has worked to support local producers and educate individuals throughout the world about the importance of bees.
This importance is highlighted by Andrea, “when we talk about bees, we usually just talk about one species, there are more than 20,0000 species of bees in the world. These 20,000 species are important in maintaining the equilibrium of our planet and to preserve that we have to get to know them.” Bees are essential to our ecosystem and Andrea and Rodrigo have dedicated their efforts to helping bees. Without the impact of Andrea and Rodrigo our agriculture systems would be doomed leading to our own demise.
Michael Davis is a current undergraduate student at Tulane University studying Finance and International Relations through the Altman program in International Studies and Business. His interest in Latin America began when he took his first Spanish class in 6th grade. Since then, Michael has traveled throughout Latin America learning about entrepreneurship, policy, and globalization. He is interested in sharing the stories of young entrepreneurs who work to expand development within Latin America. He believes their stories can inspire others and reshape the narratives of Latin America. In Latina Republic, he is excited to highlight these voices in his stories to deepen his own understanding of Latin America as well as his readers. He looks forward to inspiring innovation with his stories through Latina Republic!