“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!” This quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, is becoming scarily relevant today as bees die in vast numbers across the globe, in ways that are still scientifically a bit of a mystery. Almost a third of global farm output depends on animal pollination, and between 80% and 90% of that pollination comes from domesticated honey bees. The welfare of bees, as a key to food security for humans - and the welfare of the people who work with bees - isn't heavily covered by photographers, but it is key to our future. I spent a year in Central America documenting food security and fairtrade production; a lot of it with beekeepers and beekeeping organisations that have been certified by the fairtrade labelling organisation. Beekeepers in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, on farms, in forests and jungles, working with European bees and Africanised bees alike, all have similar stories to tell. "The flowers opened in late November instead of January, the colonies emerged from hibernation at the normal time but found no nectar, so most of them died - it's climate change.” "The pesticides on all the big farms near here have killed the bees". "The jungle is being cut down and turned into an african palm plantation, the colonies depend on genetic diversity to survive". "The bees that got through the drought were killed by a fungus after the rains.” Then there's the beekeepers. Some beekeepers get such a poor price on the local market for their honey, for their expert work and their work amid sometimes dangerous swarms of defensive bees, that they can just give up. Fortunately there are others who work within the fairtrade system. Cooperatives and associations that adhere to strict guidelines on worker rights and the environment can get prized fairtrade status. These beekeepers are getting ongoing training on beehive management.  The bees fare better, the harvests are larger and the price they get for honey sold under the fairtrade label is better too. Bees sucking up honey from the honeycomb. When the bees smell smoke they think that the hive is going to be burned, so they suck up as much honey as they can carry to take it somewhere else to re-establish a new hive. This vital activity leaves them less time to sting you. High in the mountains of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in the Todos Santos area, men wear distinctive indigenous dress. Beekeepers in the region use plenty of smoke to stop the mainly africanised bees from defending their hive with a stinging swarm. This indigenous man is a member of ACODIHUE, a fairtrade-certified association of small- scale farmers. By replacing africanised queens with european queens the aggressive behaviour of africanised colonies can be reduced. This woman beekeeper in Cuilco, Guatemala, is a member of CIPAC that is a fairtrade-certified cooperative of small-scale apiculturalists. She's been trained how to manage her hives and she now handles her hives without gloves. This woman beekeeper does a routine check on a colony. Careful management can save hives from disease, or problems with the queen bee. A queen bee cell. The queen is out, busy laying eggs. It is here that the queen is fed royal jelly, secreted from a gland on the bees’ heads. A beekeeper near Cuilco, a member of the CIPAC cooperative, removes the wax cap off some honeycomb, ready to drain the honey from it into a centrifuge. A young woman beekeeper of the CIPAC cooperative in Cuilco, Guatemala prepares a frame of honeycomb for the centrifuge. Honey pours out of a 55-gallon barrel into a filter at the COADAP warehouse in Peten, Guatemala.  A full barrel weighs about 700 pounds.  Almost all of the honey produced here is for export in bulk. COADAP beekeepers in the Peten, Guatemala, wearing protective clothing and starting up a smoker to calm the bees down. Most of the hives in the area are africanised, so protective suits are put on at least 100 metres from the hives. Miguel Angel García a beekeper associated with COADAP, checking hives near Santa Elena, Peten. Miguel Angel García a beekeeper associated with COADAP, checking hives near Santa Elena, Peten. Miguel Angel García, a beekeper associated with COADAP, checking hives near Santa Elena, Peten. Bees are held gently in the unprotected hands of a beekeeper at COPIASURO, a honey producer cooperative in southern Guatemala. Beekeepers boast that a few stings are good medicine, and along with a ready supply of honey (that has antibacterial properties) beekeepers are often said to enjoy long lives.
A beekeeper at COPIASURO, a certified fairtrade honey producer based in Guatemala. The larger bee here is the queen bee, in the brood part of the hive where maturing larvae are being fed. Some cells are being covered with wax to protect the larvae in the final stages of their development. Beekeeping suits vary quite a lot. Many of them look like space suits. This one is being worn at the Guaya'b Cooperative near Jacaltenango, Guatemala. An apiculture teacher at the Guaya'b Cooperative near Jacaltenango, Guatemala, inspects a hive as he teaches techniques to some new beekeepers. Ongoing training is provided in fairtrade-certified organisations, improving the management of hives, the quality of honey and the volume of honey harvested. OCTOBER 2012 BACK ISSUE Back to current issue