Not for the first time, Guyana’s apiculture sector is making a case for a more generous measure of official attention. Honey production may not offer the Guyana economy the same returns as the gold-mining sector, but Linden Stewart, whose professional pursuits are built entirely around the honey industry, is convinced that honey and other bee products can “make a difference” by providing considerable levels of employment and securing significant earnings from the export market.
The peaks and troughs of Guyana’s apiculture sector are a reflection of a historical lack of sustained official interest and investment in its potential. Local research suggests that honey production peaked during the 1970s when beekeepers numbered in their hundreds. Those numbers have dwindled and the vast majority of the local market has been ‘invaded’ by foreign brands. More than that, reliable reports suggest that the beekeeping community used to be better organised through a Beekeepers’ Society and that it was the arrival of African bees in Guyana that “made waves” in the industry. A local evaluation suggests that the Africanised bees “impacted negatively on the beekeeping industry and generated fear within the human population that had little knowledge of honey bees.” The African bees took over the hives, hobbyist beekeepers were unable to keep hives in backyards for fear of bees attacking people, livestock and pets. Against this backdrop, many hobbyist beekeepers disappeared and by 1985, the number of beekeepers had dwindled to below 50.
The Apiaries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture located at the Botanical Gardens was abandoned, and support given in the late 1970s and early 1980s was not followed through; the decline thereafter was obvious.
The problem, Stewart says, is a complex one. The arrival of aggressive Africanised bees in Guyana and their contact with human and animal populations led to the demonisation of the entire industry. Rather than embrace the sector as one that has economic potential, Guyanese on the whole have chosen, where they can, to put distance between themselves and bees.
Stewart belongs to a contemporary generation of beekeepers whose pursuit of the rejuvenation of the local beekeeping industry includes the development of an enhanced relationship between human and bee populations. “We need to get people to see bees as part of an industry that is good for Guyana if the industry is to do well,” Stewart says.
Days ago, Stewart returned from Grenada where a six-member Guyana delegation attended the First Caribbean Bee College at St George’s University in Grenada. Representatives of more than ten Caribbean countries gathered in St George’s to benefit from an advanced course of study in a range of disciplines associated with apiculture.
They also participated in what turned out to be a highly competitive First Caribbean Honey Show, where the Guyana delegation caught the attention of some of the Caribbean’s most accomplished beekeepers.
Stewart’s entries carted off prizes in each of the five categories, including for the best honey secured from indigenous bees and the best packaging and sealing. Several other Guyanese entries won prizes in the competition.
Stewart said he was more concerned about having the achievements promoted as achievements for Guyana rather than for himself. “I believe that when things like these happen we need to use them to try to make a case for more official support for the industry,” Stewart said.
He believes that official commitment to the growth of the sector can be much stronger. There is no laboratory in Guyana to advance the country’s knowledge of what he calls “the science of honey”. The more than 200 beekeepers scattered across the country hardly represent a cohesive bee-keeping industry and the dispersed and unattended nature of many of the hives in remote interior areas means that the sector has no clear idea as to its production capacity.
One thing that bothers Stewart is that local beekeepers have, for years, been unable to secure a meaningful share of the local honey market which includes an estimated 4,000-gallon requirement by Banks DIH Ltd, for use in the manufacture of its malt beverages.
Industry estimates suggest that beekeepers are missing out on what may be a US$14 million market that could turn the sector around dramatically. Stewart admits that a case cannot be made at this time for persuading the beverage company to shift its patronage to local beekeepers though he argues that “it is not a question of the quality of the honey we produce.” Reliable scientific tests have verified that there are no pests or diseases in the country’s bee population. This, he says, was particularly notable at a time when some of the world’s major honey producers are probably not in the best of positions to make that boast.
Stewart has worked in interior communities with official blessing and support to help create an industry out of hives built by bees in the wild, which, up until his intervention with the assistance of Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, were vulnerable to “honey hunters”. He said he believes that the market offered by Banks’ demand for honey represents a potential launching pad for the take off of the local industry. One of the short-term ambitions of Kingdom Apiaries, a company of which he is part owner, is a possible arrangement with Banks under which the company might finance the acquisition of the equipment with which to produce the honey in exchange for guaranteed supplies. The other option, he says, is to pursue commercial bank financing for the consolidation of the industry. Though he said this pursuit does not appear to appeal to the commercial banks at this time.
Stewart is unsure as to the extent of the financial input that would constitute what one might call a “meaningful investment” in the apiculture sector. “It is a multi-million dollar venture but all of the research that has been done suggests that the investment would be more than worth the while,” Stewart said. He believes that the takeoff of the sector requires that government “lead the way”.
At the moment, the Bee Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture is served by a Cuban expert and local staff though Stewart says that the absence of either trained Guyanese apiculturalists serving with the Ministry or equipment with which to do more intensive research into the sector and its potential are serious obstacles to the growth of the industry. “What can be frustrating is when we discover, based on our travels to events like the recent event in Grenada that Guyana’s honey could sell well on the international market but that our ability to build an industry is limited by a lack of resources,” Stewart said.
Stewart believes that his work with the sector in some interior communities has helped to transform the relationship between humans and bee colonies. “Part of the objective of the work that I did was to help transform those communities from honey-hunters to beekeepers. The difference here is that the industry has come to be seen as an economic resource. The hives are valued for their earning capacity and the honey is harvested methodically.”
Among some interior communities the marketing of honey has become an important economic pursuit. While Stewart concedes that it is a modest and still relatively unorganised venture it represents a significant improvement on what went before. “The communities that have been involved have been able to earn much more from their ventures. Issues like bottling, labelling and marketing have become part of the agenda. There is some measure of improvement.”
Late last year Kingdom Apiaries became one of four members of the Guyana Apiculture Society to benefit from grants through the European Union-funded Caribbean Export Development Agency. Stewart said the grant will be used to help the industry to built capacity, particularly in those areas that can better position it to enhance its production and marketing capacity and grow its market both at home and overseas.