Exploring the potential of Guyana’s beekeeping industry

For more than 30 years beekeeping or apiculture has been pursued primarily as a hobby with apiaries yielding modest amounts of honey sufficient to sustain no more than a cottage industry. The pursuit took no serious account of either the large and lucrative international market or the diversification possibilities that repose in the industry’s value-added potential. Globally, Asia, the United States and some countries in South America are among the major players in the honey industry. Last year 2.7 million honey-producing colonies in the United States generated 17.9 million gallons of raw honey, up 20 per cent from 2009 production levels. That honey windfall occurred at a time when the average price for locally produced honey was around US$1.60 per pound. Honey production makes financial sense even in a country with an economy the size of America. Last year, Vietnam, one of the Asia’s honey-producing giants exported 22,500 metric tonnes of honey. By comparison Guyana is a micro player in the industry. Indeed, last year’s overall honey production totalled a mere 8,000 gallons, an amount that is less than adequate even to satisfy the demands of local industry. Companies, like Banks DIH Ltd, import thousands of gallons of honey annually. Hotels and restaurants must also make do with the various brands of imported honey as must domestic consumers.

Gathering honey in Guyana

Guyana’s small honey industry comprises approximately 200 beekeepers with around 1,500 tended hives though it is widely known that many more thousands of untended ones are located in the country’s rainforests and local Amerindian populations are known to harvest honey from the wild. While there is little chance that Guyana will become a world class honey producer in the foreseeable future, there is evidence the local beekeepers are beginning to become more aware of the existence of lucrative domestic and regional markets for the product. Small but noticeable quantities of locally produced honey are beginning to appear on supermarket shelves, evidence that local beekeepers are beginning to take more advantage of the economic prospects which the industry offers. Amerindian displays at coastal food exhibitions are beginning to reflect an infusion of honey and related products, where there had traditionally been dominance of indigenous craft. This, in large measure, is attributable to the work done by Linden Stewart, one of the country’s most knowledgeable and committed beekeepers. There is evidence too that official attitudes to the potential of beekeeping as a serious private sector pursuit are changing. Certainly, in recent years, the Ministry of Agriculture has been showing signs of paying more attention to the industry.

Kingdom Apiary

As far as natural habitat is concerned, Guyana’s vast expanses of forested land, and the abundance of the pollen-producing flora and fauna offer an ideal breeding ground for bees and a giant laboratory for apiculture experimentation. Hives are constructed locally, mostly from Silverballi. Kingdom Apiary Products, one of the more successful local honey producers, also builds hives. Aubrey Roberts is the Team Leader of Kingdom Apiary, a now thriving beekeeping enterprise. Roberts says that a typical hive costs around $28,000 to operate. Protective clothing including suits and gloves cost around $18,500. More modest sums are required for apiary kits containing tools to remove the beeswax and expose the honeycombs where bees store their honey. Kingdom Apiary Products was set up in 2000 by Roberts and two business partners. Stewart is one of those partners. The enterprise began as a swarm removal service and grew incrementally. Today, its annual production has reached approximately 4,000 gallons, a modest achievement by international standards but a major leap forward for the local industry.

Understandably, there is not enough honey to go around. Distribution is done based of several small domestic orders. Roberts says that what Kingdom Apiary produces is not even enough to keep the supermarkets in stock. Kingdom Apiary continues to expand its operations, hiving the swarms collected from the wild, from the buildings and from trees.

Roberts is a trained beekeeper and Kingdom Apiary has added training to the services that it provides in the hope that expanding the national knowledge base will help the industry to grow.

Bringing the country’s widely scattered beekeepers together is one of the ways in which the Ministry of Agriculture has been supporting the industry. The ministry has also been involved in initiatives to re-train existing beekeepers and to train new ones as well as to help source funding for colony growth. In October last year the ministry hosted a conference on the theme ‘Promoting Beekeeping through Strategic Partnerships’ with the aim of attempting to mobilize local beekeepers and other stakeholders in the industry. Guyana has also participated in regional and international conferences on the beekeeping industry.

This year so far a number of international consultants have been recruited to conduct various fact-finding studies. Work done by Clive de Bruyn from the United Kingdom-based T3ees for Development Organisation’ has concluded that Guyana offers an organic honey product (given the fact that production methods minimize human contact and the near total absence of the use of insecticides in or around hives) which fetches higher prices on the international market. In April, Virginia Webb, a Master Beekeeper attached to the Atlanta-based Partners for the Americas organisation, undertook a factfinding mission to Guyana, concluding that while the environment here was well-suited to breeding large bee populations, more work had to be done to increase honey production per colony.

Pure honey

Other studies have concluded that the local beekeeping industry is free from the disease-related threats that have afflicted the industry elsewhere.
Building a successful beekeeping industry here, however, requires initiatives to bridge the huge geographical gaps that separate local beekeepers. Research done on the industry locally indicates that there are 220 active beekeeping operations with an average of 4.5 colonies per beekeeper. These are situated at locations as far-flung as Linden and Black Bush Polder with intervening operations along the East Bank, through Georgetown to West Coast Berbice. Established colonies are located at Sophia, at Supply and Providence on the East Bank, along the Soesdyke/Linden Highway and in the West Watooka area. A number of colonies are located across hinterland areas including Mabaruma and Mazaruni. Most of these, however, are modest operations that amount to little more than cottage industries.

Roberts acknowledges that the local beekeeping industry still has a considerable distance to travel before it can make any significant impact on the Guyana economy. To arrive at the stage where production can meet local demand and secure even modest export earnings, the industry must embark on an extensive initiative aimed at upgrading the various beekeeping operations, and undertaking extensive training in the industry. Increased honey production must also be attended by local and international product promotion and branding and packaging programmes to enable the product to meet international standards requirements. However, significant savings can be realized since the purity of Guyana’s honey obviates the need for investment in costly equipment and procedures for processing, inserting additives and removing solids from the product.

But there is more to beekeeping than honey production. Current estimates are that annual food production valued at approximately US$20 billion depends upon pollination of crops by a healthy beekeeping industry. In that context, Guyana can reap added value from its beekeeping industry. Roberts says that added value also reposes in the potential for the use of beeswax and other byproducts as ingredients for the production of various consumer goods. Royal Jelly, for example, is a by-product of the industry that contains special enzymes that can be used in energy-giving foods and beverages. Beeswax is already known for its restorative properties for human hair and skin and is also an important ingredient in the production of candles, elixirs, lotions, lipsticks and polishes.

Artisans involved in craft production use beeswax to refine leather and to create batik designs on fabric. Propolis, another by-product of the industry is extensively used in the pharmaceutical industry as an antibiotic while bee venom research has found that it contains properties that can serve as remedies for arthritic conditions, rheumatism and edemas. Perhaps the best incentive for paying more attention to the development of the local beekeeping industry reposes in the growing global demand for honey linked to its increasingly important in the health sector. The carbohydrate compound has become a singularly acceptable, practical and effective product to generate heat and replace lost energy. The global health industry has also linked honey to the formation of enzymes and other biological ferments to promote oxidation. Honey is also known to have distinct germicidal properties.

At a local beekeeping forum held in Georgetown last October, Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud drew attention to the potential for growth in the industry in Guyana, pointing out that given the extent of the country’s forested area Guyana has the capacity to accommodate seventeen million hives that could produce volumes of honey worth more than $800 million on the international market. If the great promise which Minister Persaud sees for the beekeeping sector is to be realized, however, a great deal more evidence is needed that the stakeholders in the industry, not least the government, are prepared to pool their expertise, on the one hand and resources on the other, to chart a course towards the realization of that potential.

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