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American bees March 1st, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When the Spanish conquered the New World, the colonists who followed them brought honey bees. These European bees carried out their own version of the conquest, displacing a wide variety of stingless, native American bees. The native American people had known about these stingless bees and used their honey for centuries. Some, such as the Maya, kept bees for their honey, and many other peoples gathered honey from the wild.

The European honey bee is more aggressive and bigger than the American bees. The African honey bee and the European honey bee are sub-species of the same species, Apis mellifera. The European bee lives in large colonies of some 80,000 individuals, while the native bees live in smaller hives, of 3,000 or so. The American bees have suffered from the loss of forest habitat, and from competition with the European bees, which gather nectar from the same sources that the native bees need.

But the native American bees are making a comeback, as I learned recently on a course taught by two biologists who are experts in native American bees: Marcia Adler Yáñez from the Gabriel René Moreno Museum of Natural History in Bolivia and Oscar “Rupa” Amaya, who is Colombian, but a long-time resident of Brazil.

The American honey bees are a diverse lot, of at least 400 species. Some of the larger ones are as big as European honey bees, while some of the smaller ones are the size of a grain of rice.

The native American bees are gentle (some more than others) and although they do not have stingers, some species will bite to defend their nests. Unlike European bees, which put their honey in combs, native American bees keep their honey and pollen in little wax pots. The American bees have a complex nest structure. The queen lays her eggs in cells in a horizontal comb (unlike the vertical ones the European bees make). The combs of native bees can be disk shaped, or spiral or amorphous. The brood chambers, full of eggs in cells, are surrounded by a wax labyrinth, the involucrum, made to discourage ants and other predators. The pots of honey and pollen are placed around the involucrum.

One species of bee, called señorita, is known from Mexico to Argentina for its fine honey, widely regarded to be an eye ointment. A drop in each eye relieves pain and irritation.

Rupa and Marcia teach their students various techniques to care for native American bees. While keepers of European honey bees have made wooden boxes, or hives, for bee colonies, this was not a common practice for native American bees. In the past 30 years, bee experts in Brazil have adapted bee boxes for native American bees. These bee hives are smaller than those for European bees, but the boxes have thicker walls to keep the bees warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Rupa and Marcia also teach the use of a simple trap for capturing wild colonies. A plastic soda pop bottle, two-liters or larger, is covered in newspaper (to keep the nest warm) and black plastic (to keep it dark). A tube is placed in a small opening in the side of the bottle, making an inviting door to entice a young queen to set up her nest in the bottle. The bottle is hung on a tree in a forest with bees. In good bee habitat, bees may colonize the bottle within weeks. A skilled beekeeper can later transfer the colony to a proper, wooden hive.

Struggling colonies can be encouraged with an extra food supply. On the bee course, we learned how to make wax pots and fill them with honey or pollen gathered by European honey bees, which you can buy in the store. The native bees will eat the honey and convert the pollen to “bee bread” by using special enzymes. They will also use the wax from the pots to make their own brood cells and food pots.

Bees make wax with an organ in their abdomen, but wax is expensive. The bees need six or eight grams of honey to make a gram of wax. So, putting wax in the nests gives the bees a head-start and lets them start a colony faster.

Brazilian universities have been studying native American bees since the 1950s, and the techniques for keeping these bees are slowly spreading to other Latin American countries. There are also native bees in Australia, where some quite keen beekeepers use bee boxes similar to the Brazilian ones.

Native honey is thin, but sweet and it has a fine flavor. The larger species of native bees can make up to eight liters of honey a year, but the small species can only make about one liter, so this honey is expensive, but it is starting to appear in specialty shops.

We also met a Bolivian forester, Juan Carlos Aruquipa, who works on a project to teach women in the rainforest (the Yungas) to manage native bees, and to sell the honey. This is important, because many of the small flowers of tropical American trees must be pollinated by bees to set seed. And the bees feed on the nectar from the trees. So, without bees there are no trees, and without trees there are no bees.

This is a case where agriculture is moving forward in an imaginative direction, learning to care for wild bees, and to produce valuable honey. Bees need a lot of care, so they are difficult to handle on a massive, corporate scale. But they are perfect for smallholders, especially for women, who find the smaller hives and the gentle bees easier to handle. The little hives are ideal to keep at home. Native American bees are a new, creative direction for agroecological farming.

Scientific names

All bees, American, European, and others, belong to the family Apidae. The European, African and Asian bees with stingers belong to the genus Apis. The stingless, American, Australian and African bees belong to the tribe Meliponini. The large native bees are in the genus Melipona and the small ones are grouped into several genera, including Trigona, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona, and Tetratrigonisca. The señorita is Tetragonisca angustula. All of these bees are social. In the Americas and elsewhere there are many other bee species that are solitary, such as bumble bees.

Further reading

I have been interested in Native American bees for a long time, and give a short account of them in:

Bentley, Jeffery, W. and Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology,42(2):285-300.

LAS ABEJAS AMERICANAS

Por Jeff Bentley, el primero de marzo del 2020

Cuando los españoles conquistaron el Nuevo Mundo, los colonos que los siguieron trajeron abejas. Estas abejas europeas hicieron su propia versión de la conquista, desplazando a una gran variedad de abejas nativas americanas sin aguijón. Los indígenas conocían a estas abejas nativas y usaron su miel durante siglos. Algunos, como los mayas, guardaban abejas para su miel, y muchos otros pueblos recolectaban miel de la naturaleza.

La abeja europea es más agresiva y más grande que las abejas americanas. La abeja africana y la abeja europea son subespecies de la misma especie, Apis mellifera. La abeja europea vive en grandes colonias de unos 80.000 individuos, mientras que las abejas nativas viven en colmenas más pequeñas, de unos 3.000. Las abejas americanas han sufrido la pérdida de su hábitat forestal, y la competencia con las abejas europeas, que recogen el néctar de las mismas flores que las abejas nativas.

Pero hay nueva esperanza para las abejas nativas americanas, como aprendĂ­ recientemente en un curso impartido por dos biĂłlogos expertos en abejas nativas americanas: Marcia Adler Yáñez del Museo de Historia Natural Gabriel RenĂ© Moreno de Bolivia y Oscar “Rupa” Amaya, que es colombiano pero residente en Brasil desde hace mucho tiempo.

La abeja americana es un grupo muy diverso, de al menos 400 especies. Algunas de las más grandes son del tamaño de las abejas europeas, mientras que algunas de las más chicas son tan pequeñas como un grano de arroz.

Las abejas nativas americanas son relativamente mansos y a pesar de que no tienen aguijones, algunas especies muerden para defender sus nidos. A diferencia de las abejas europeas, que ponen su miel en panales, las abejas nativas americanas guardan su miel y polen en pequeños potes de cera. Las abejas americanas tienen un nido con estructura complicada. La reina pone sus huevos en celdas en un panal horizontal (a diferencia de los verticales que hacen las abejas europeas). Los panales de las abejas nativas pueden tener forma de disco, o de espiral o amorfo. Las celdas de las crías (huevos y larvas), están rodeadas por un laberinto de cera, llamado el involucre, hecho para confundir a las hormigas y otros depredadores. Los potes de miel y polen están fuera y alrededor del involucre.

Una especie de abeja, llamada la señorita, es conocida desde México hasta Argentina por su fina miel, ampliamente considerada como un ungüento para los ojos. Una gota en cada ojo alivia el dolor y la irritación.

Rupa y Marcia enseñan a sus estudiantes varias técnicas para cuidar a las abejas nativas americanas. Mientras que los guardianes de las abejas europeas han hecho cajas de madera, o colmenas, para las colonias de abejas, esta no era una práctica común para las abejas nativas americanas. En los últimos 30 años, los expertos en abejas de Brasil han adaptado colmenas para las abejas nativas. Estas colmenas son más pequeñas que las de las abejas europeas, pero las cajas tienen paredes más gruesas para mantener a las abejas calientes en el invierno y frescas en el verano.

Rupa y Marcia también enseñan el uso de una simple trampa para capturar colonias salvajes. Una botella de refresco de plástico, de dos litros o más grande, se cubre con papel de periódico (para mantener el nido tibio) y plástico negro (para mantenerlo oscuro). Se coloca un tubo en una pequeña apertura en el costado de la botella, haciendo una puerta atractiva para atraer a una joven reina a establecer su nido en la botella. La botella se cuelga de un árbol en un bosque con abejas; en un buen hábitat para las abejas, la botella puede albergar abejas en unas semanas. Un hábil apicultor puede más tarde transferir la colonia a una colmena de madera adecuada.

Las colonias dĂ©biles pueden ser fortalecidas con comida extra. En el curso de las abejas nativas, aprendimos a hacer potes de cera y llenarlas con miel o polen recolectado por las abejas europeas, que se puede comprar en la tienda. Las abejas nativas comerán la miel y convertirán el polen en “pan de abeja” usando enzimas especiales. TambiĂ©n usarán la cera de los potes para hacer sus propias celdas de crĂ­a y ollas de comida.

Las abejas hacen cera con un órgano en su abdomen, pero la cera es cara de hacer. Las abejas necesitan seis u ocho gramos de miel para hacer un gramo de cera. Por lo tanto, poner cera en los nidos ayuda a las abejas a establecer una colonia más fuerte, más rápido.

Las universidades brasileñas han estudiado las abejas nativas americanas desde la década de los 1950, y las técnicas para mantener estas abejas se están extendiendo lentamente a otros países de América Latina. También hay abejas nativas de Australia, donde unos ávidos apicultores hacen cajas parecidas a las brasileñas, para criar abejas.

La miel nativa es menos espesa, pero dulce y tiene un sabor fino. Las especies más grandes de abejas nativas pueden hacer hasta ocho litros de miel al año, pero las especies pequeñas sólo pueden hacer un litro, por lo que esta miel es cara, pero está empezando a aparecer en tiendas especializadas.

También conocimos a un ingeniero forestal boliviano, Juan Carlos Aruquipa, que trabaja en un proyecto para enseñar a las mujeres del bosque lluvioso (los Yungas) a manejar las abejas nativas y vender la miel. Esto es importante, porque muchas de las pequeñas flores de los árboles tropicales americanos deben ser polinizados por las abejas para que formen semilla. Y las abejas se alimentan del néctar de los árboles. Así que sin abejas no hay árboles, y sin árboles no hay abejas.

Este es un caso en el que la agricultura avanza en una dirección imaginativa, aprendiendo a cuidar a las abejas silvestres, y a producir una valiosa miel. Las abejas necesitan cierto cuidado, por lo que son perfectas para los pequeños agricultores, especialmente para las mujeres. Las colmenas más pequeñas y las abejas más mansas son más fáciles de manejar. Sería difícil que las empresas grandes las manejan, pero las colmenas pequeñas son ideales para tener en casa. Las abejas nativas americanas son una nueva y creativa dirección para la agricultura agroecológica.

Nombres cientĂ­ficos

Todas las abejas, americanas y europeas, pertenecen a la familia Apidae. Las abejas europeas, africanas y asiáticas con aguijón pertenecen al género Apis. Las abejas americanas, australianas, y africanas sin aguijón pertenecen a la tribu Meliponini. Las abejas nativas grandes pertenecen al género Melipona y las pequeñas se agrupan en varios géneros, entre ellos Trigona, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona y Tetratrigonisca. La señorita es Tetragonisca angustula. Además de estas abejas sociales, en las Américas y en otros continentes hay muchas otras especies que son solitarias, como los abejorros.

Más información

Me han interesado las abejas nativas americanas por mucho tiempo, y doy una breve reseña de ellas en: Bentley, Jeffery, W. and Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology,42(2):285-300.

A history worth its salt February 9th, 2020 by

Mark Kurlansky’s well-written and inspiring book Salt: A World History, shows how crucial salt has been throughout our history.

Salt was at the very core of Chinese, Mayan and Roman civilization, as it was a key source of revenue for the State. Some ancient civilizations were conquered by destroying the opponent’s access to salt. An army without salt was almost as easily conquered as one without weapons.  A soldier’s daily ration often contained dried and salted meat. Horses would come to a standstill if they lacked a regular intake of salt.

Marco Polo’s economic intelligence was important in part because of his ideas about salt. The son of an established trader in Venice, Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century A.D. to establish trade relations. When he returned to Venice after a second, 20-year long visit to China, Marco Polo brought back knowledge of how a salt administration can fill the treasury and that a state can make more profit from trading salt than from producing it. Venice was able to dominate Mediterranean commerce after 1380, thanks to their salt trade, along with their smaller vessels that were more easily converted into war ships than the larger, less versatile Genoese ships. Venetian power lasted for about a century, until the Genoese Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama opened the Atlantic Ocean as the main body of water for trade, by-passing the Mediterranean. While Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India to avoid the Mediterranean, Columbus tried to beat him by going straight west, where the Americas blocked his route to India, but eventually led to new salt works in the Caribbean.

Having understood the political importance of salt, the British colonial power also adopted a salt administration. In 1600, Queen Elisabeth I granted the East India Company powers almost equal to those of a state: The East India Company was allowed to mint its own money, govern its employees, raise an army and navy, and declare war against rivals. To keep India under control, one of the first things the East India Company aimed for was to neutralise local structures of salt production and marketing.

Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi broke the British monopoly on salt by encouraging the Indian people to take up local salt production again, usually by evaporating seawater near the coast, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.

But salt making soon slipped away from craft producers. Nowadays, salt in India, as in most other countries, is in the hands of a few powerful companies. As an irony of history, British Salt, a company established in 1969 in the U.K. has since 2011 been taken over by Tata Chemicals Europe, which is part of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational holding company.

The six leading salt producers in the world, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Pakistan and the United States, account for more than half of the worldwide production. In all six countries, apart from China, salt is in the hands of large corporations.

Currently, China Salt is a state-owned enterprise that has a national monopoly over the management and production of edible salt, employing some 50,000 people and controlling assets worth about 7 billion Euro. According the law, salt cannot be sold across different regions, and private citizens are banned from selling their own manufactured salt. 

Just as large corporations have taken over much of the global production of food, agro-chemicals and seed, oligarchies have also dominated the salt supply. It is unlikely that revenues generated from the sales of salt and minerals still benefit states and the well-being of its citizens. Large corporations after all are known for finding clever ways to evade taxes.

Today much of our commercial salt comes from deep, mechanized mines. Salt has become so cheap that we routinely add it to animal feeds, and leave salt blocks for the livestock to lick at their leisure. Salt is now so abundant that we have to be cautioned that eating too much of it is bad for our heart. But it was not always so. Kurlansky invites us to imagine a world, not long ago, when salt was one of the most expensive foods that people bought. While the price of salt has dropped tremendously, the sheer volume of global consumption still makes it a powerful commodity.

Suggested reading

Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt:A World History. Penguin Books, pp. 484

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Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

“How can you stand to eat your old friend?” one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego CarlĂłn, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred LeĂłn Plasencia of IDMA.

Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

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