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Industrious and indispensable, bees are nature’s “essential workers.”

Their pollination powers entire ecosystems and food systems — with more than 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants and a third of all crops relying on bees and other pollinators to reproduce.

Yet bees are declining at alarming rates. Mass die-offs have been linked to pesticides,
parasitic mites and shrinking habitats. Extreme heat fueled by
climate change is further disrupting colonies and their foraging patterns.

Around the world, women beekeepers are helping to protect bees by sharing their knowledge and traditions. The bees, in turn, provide honey — an important source of food and income, which in many cases generates economic independence and autonomy
for women in places where there are few other opportunities.

This International Women’s Day, Conservation News highlights the work of three beekeepers who live in very different geographies, but are united in their passion for the pollinators.

 

Jiyunt Uyunkar, Ecuador

© Conservation International/photo
by Sebastian Espin
© Conservation International/photo
by Luis Hernandez
© Conservation International/photo
by Luis Hernandez

“I’ve felt connected to bees ever since I can remember.” – Jiyunt Uyunkar

As a child, Jiyunt Uyunkar suffered from bouts of bronchitis that left her gasping for air. Antibiotics didn’t seem to help, but honey eased her symptoms. Specifically, the medicinal honey from stingless Melipona bees, which her father gathered
from hollow trees in the rainforest surrounding her village.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have used Melipona honey for countless generations to treat colds, heal wounds, and ward off microbial and fungal infections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for the honey surged in Indigenous communities like Uyunkar’s,
where it was sought as an alternative remedy for upper respiratory ailments.

“The bees were so important to us and many others during the pandemic,” says Uyunkar, 36, a member of the Achuar Nation. “We have much to thank them for.”

But despite their healing honey, Melipona bees across the Amazon are under threat from deforestation, pesticides and climate change. Uyunkar is on a mission
to protect them. 

With support from Conservation International’s Amazonia Indigenous Women’s Fellowship — which provides funding for women leading conservation in their territories — she is sharing her beekeeping experience with women from her own community and the
network of Indigenous fellows.

In some cases Melipona honey has been foraged by cutting down trees to extract wild nests, which were often destroyed in the process. Uyunkar is teaching women to raise stingless bees and multiply their colonies sustainably in wooden boxes that allow
easy access to the honey.

“The idea is to help the bees repopulate, so they can help us,” she says. “We support each other mutually.”

Caring for the vital pollinators “gives back to nature,” Uyunkar says, as the Meliponas help fertilize the Amazon’s native flora. Moreover, selling honey and related products, like wax candles, soap and candy, helps women generate income
— which can provide greater financial independence.

“My aim is to strengthen traditional knowledge and create economies within our communities,” she says. “We can use what nature gives us; we don’t need to rely on what is brought from the city.”

Uyunkar sees beekeeping and its related enterprises as a steppingstone to more autonomy for her community — and for women, who have traditionally been excluded from leadership roles. 

“I want women to know their work and opinions are valid,” she adds. “We don’t have to wait for the men to speak for us or dream for us.” 

 

Menani Kaitoga, Fiji

© Conservation International/photo
by Sera Nagusuca
© Conservation International/photo
by Sera Nagusuca

“I talk with the bees. The bees can tell if you come with pure intent.” – Menani Kaitoga

Beekeeping was not Menani Kaitoga’s passion; it was her husbands. But when he passed unexpectedly in 2019, she had to make a decision to keep the family farm alive.

“At one point I thought of giving up, but I looked around and saw my children,” she says. “I couldn’t let my husband’s death knock me down. I knew I had to step up for my family.”

With eight children to care for, some still in grade school, she took the reins of the farm — approximately 23 hectares (56 acres) of sugarcane, root crops and vegetables, plus several tilapia ponds.

And, of course, the bees.

Kaitoga’s husband, Moce Liliwalu, had learned to keep bees as part of a program from Conservation International and the government of Fiji that helps farmers create sustainable sources of income and improve crop production. Liliwalu cared for the
bees diligently — cutting weeds and vines away from their hives, feeding them brown sugar twice a month, and noting their progress in his farm journal.

Now, the bees are Kaitoga’s pursuit. And, among all the chores and expenses required to keep the farm going, she’s grateful that these industrious pollinators mostly take care of themselves.

“It’s sweet and easy money,” Kaitoga, 53, says.

“With sugarcane, you have to till the land, and harvest the cane and hire trucks to go to the mill,” she adds. “But with beekeeping, nature does most of the work and the honey sells at a very good rate.”

Fiji’s western province of Ra is known for producing high quality honey, but it’s an industry dominated by men. Kaitoga is one of the area’s few female beekeepers and, with six hives, she has the largest yield — producing about
240 kilograms (530 pounds) of honey each year, which she sells to a wholesaler who comes right to her door.

Income from the honey helped pay for her kids’ education. Now, her two eldest sons are helping to run the farm. Motivated by her plentiful honey harvests, Kaitoga is working with them to grow the family’s bee business.

“My husband always wanted to get to 20 hives, that’s what we’re going to do,” she says. “We’re going to continue what he started. It’s not a dream, it’s a goal.”

 

Patricia Rodríguez, Colombia 

© Conservation International
© Conservation International/photo by Julian Sotelo

“The bees are part of my family now. I understand them, and they take care of us.” – Patricia Rodríguez

Growing up in a dairy community on Colombia’s high Andean grasslands, Patricia Rodríguez saw few opportunities for herself. So, she set out to change them. 

“When I was younger, there was a lot of machismo,” she says. “All the women would cook for their husbands, and milk the cows and take care of the farms — but they were never paid for their labor. They were completely dependent
on what the men would give them.”

“I wanted something different, so we wouldn’t live the same experiences as our mothers,” Rodríguez adds. “I wanted a better quality of life for women and their families.”

In 2000, she started an organization to train local women entrepreneurs to produce cheese, yogurt and other dairy products. Today, the group includes nearly 50 women, who sell their goods in nearby markets. They support their families — and
an additional 200 farmers who supply their milk.

Eager to diversify their income and production, Rodríguez and other women in the Chingaza Páramo began beekeeping thanks to a Conservation International project that helps Colombia’s highland communities adapt to climate change by promoting sustainable livelihoods. She now feels a kinship with the matriarchal society of bees.

“It’s hard work, but I just fell in love with them,” she says. “The beehives remind me of our women’s group: Every woman plays an important role in our collective success. We’re smart and we work hard, just like
bees in a hive.”

Rodríguez uses honey and pollen from her 10 hives to sweeten and fortify her yogurt. And selling her honey has helped compensate for a drop in milk production as a recent drought, spurred by climate change and this year’s El Nino weather
cycle, withered her dairy cows’ once-lush pastures.

Importantly, she says, by fertilizing the páramo’s flowering plants and shrubs, the bees are helping to protect this delicate ecosystem. The high-altitude wetlands not only support farming communities like her own, they also filter drinking water for millions
of Colombians in large cities like Bogotá.

“In the past three years, I’ve seen how our bees are improving the pastures — they grow more quickly,” Rodríguez says.

“The bees are part of my family now,” she adds. “I understand them, and they take care of us.”

 

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