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Dung talk August 1st, 2021 by

Nowhere in the world do take people dung more seriously than in South Asia. For ages cow dung has been a valuable resource. In the countryside people collect fresh dung by hand, shape it into small balls and press it against the walls of houses to allow it to dry. Sometimes the dung balls are skewered onto one-meter long sticks. The dried dung is used as fuel to cook meals. In dryland areas where fuelwood is scarce, these dung sticks are especially important.

Dung is also used as fertilizer, and in India people prepare it in various ways. Sometimes they mix the dung with cow urine, chickpea flour, molasses and water and let it ferment for about a week to allow the microorganisms to multiply. Farmers use the solid or liquid preparations as a seed coating, to keep pests away and to help the seed to grow. Applied to crops as a fertilizer, the dung preparations also help to revive the soil. These and other traditional practices add organic matter to the soil while supporting a cover of vegetation year-round. This is increasingly seen as a way to achieve food security and cool our planet. The Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India, has embraced these technologies and is promoting them to millions of smallholder farmers, setting an example to the world.

However, when sharing ideas between countries, sometimes deeply held practices need to be re-examined. As I mentioned in my previous blog it is important to understand the scientific principles underpinning technologies, so that farmers can then adapt these to their own context.

For example, a few years ago one of our Indian partners was developing a video on good microbes, and I insisted that he asked local experts if other dung could be used, not just from cows. A few weeks later he reported back that everyone had agreed, only cow dung should be used. Sheep or goat dung would be no good.

This set me thinking a lot. While we were still making that video, I was able to fix a meeting with Camilla Toulmin, former Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. While her focus had been on policy research about agriculture, land, climate and livelihoods in dryland regions of Africa, I knew that her PhD research on natural resource management in Mali had touched on the use of manure. After an hour on skype, we had shared a lot of information, but were still unsure if sheep dung was as good a source of beneficial microbes as cow dung.

As I mulled over my conversation with Camilla, I kept thinking back to one time in a village in northern Ghana when we had screened a video about using animal manure in farming. A woman in the audience had asked, “Why do you only show cow manure? Cows belong to men! As we women, do not have cows, but only sheep and goats, can we not do anything with this dung to fertilize our land?”

That was a few years ago. Now that I have a few sheep of my own, and can try out things myself, I have some new insights. Microbes need food and water to grow. In dryland areas, or when animals graze on dry pasture, their droppings dry out pretty fast. The good micro-organisms in the dung may start to die. On lush vegetation, the droppings of my sheep are much larger than the typical small balls one imagines when thinking of sheep droppings. When I prepare my solution of good microbes I collect the dung when it is still fresh.

Indian farmers and experts may be right about cow dung being the most suitable resource in the drylands. Sheep droppings may just dry out too fast to keep the good microbes alive. But in the rainy season or in more humid countries, sheep dung may have lots of beneficial micro-organisms. And for women in northern Ghana, who don’t have cow dung, sheep and goat droppings may still add much needed nutrients to their soil. As soil microbiologist Walter Jehne said: “We should promote the principles and not be dogmatic about it. If you only have reindeer, you may as well make organic manure from their dung, and do not need cow dung.”

Communicating technologies to farmers cross-culturally requires that we move beyond time-honoured recipes. We need to understand the underlying principles and explain them as well as we can. There is gold in more than one type of dung.

Related blogs

Principles matter

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

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Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

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Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

A lost Alpine agriculture January 10th, 2021 by

As more youth move to cities, in Africa, but also in South Asia and Latin America, development experts worry about the future of rural communities. So, we can learn a lesson by taking a glimpse at a region where most youth left agriculture some three generations ago.

An American anthropologist, Brien Meilleur, studied farming in Les Allues, a village in the French Alps, in the mid-1980s. Meilleur was especially well-qualified for the topic, as decades earlier, his own father had left Les Allues for the USA.

Meilleur interviewed elderly farmers at length about the days of their youth, roughly back in the 1940s. Now retired, they painted a picture of an agriculture in balance with nature, where farm families worked in synchrony. They had large cereal fields, divided into many individual plots. Each year they agreed upon a time to plow, and each household would plow their own small plot, within the big field. By plowing and planting at the same time they avoided trampling each other’s grain crop.  The big fields were on a three-year rotation, beginning with rye, then barley and finally fallow-plus-pulses.

Folks made wine and hard apple cider from fruit they grew themselves. They wintered cows, sheep and goats in stables, moving them in the spring to montagnettes, cabins above the hamlets where the families made their own cheese. Then every year on 11 June, in a grand procession, the whole village would move their livestock to the high Alpine pastures, with cowbells ringing and dogs barking. The animals would graze communally, on named pastures, moving uphill as summer progressed to ever-higher grazing, until they were brought back down on 14 September. Outside specialists were hired to come turn the milk into cheese, mostly a fine gruyere, which they sold.

Barnyard manure provided all the fertilizer the farms needed. To save on firewood, neighbors baked their bread on the same day in ovens in the hamlet square. About 80 or 90% of what people ate came from Les Allues itself. The roots of this rural economy went back to at least the 1300s, if not earlier. But, as Meilleur explains, this farming system had collapsed about 1950, at least in Les Allues. He mourns the loss of this way of life, and as I read his moving account, I couldn’t help but share in his sadness.

The collapse came about in part because of emigration. Young people were leaving Les Allues for the cities as early as the 19th century. But there were other reasons for abandoning agriculture. After the World War II, the villagers sold much of their farmland to the Méribel Ski Resort, established just above the highest of the village’s hamlets. There were now lots of jobs for local people, on the ski slopes, and in the busy hotels, shops and restaurants. The vacationers even visited the beautiful village in the summer, for golf, tennis and mountain biking, so there was employment year-round. The youth of Les Allues no longer had to leave home to find work; the jobs had come to them.

The old agricultural landscape changed quickly, as the pastures became pistes de ski, and the fields grew wild with brush. The livestock were sold off and the apple trees were strangled by mistletoe, as people abandoned a way of living that (in today’s jargon) was sustainable and carbon neutral, and the bedrock of their community.

It is easy to romanticize a healthy rural lifestyle, but the good old days had some rough times, too. The farmers of Les Allues managed erosion in their cereal fields by hand-carrying the earth from the bottom furrow to the top of the field every year, the most back-breaking soil conservation method I’ve ever heard of. For six weeks in July and August, people cut hay for six days a week from 5 AM to 10 PM, to feed their animals over the winter. To save on fuel, the families would spend winter evenings sitting in the barn, where the cows gave off enough heat to keep everyone warm. People ate meat once a week, maybe twice.

Given the amount of hard work, and the low pay, it is understandable that the young people of Les Allues left farming. It happened all over Europe. In England during the Industrial Revolution, many farm workers took factory jobs. While some moved to the cities, others commuted on the train, and stayed in their village (The Common Stream). Northern Portuguese farm laborers, who described their lives as “misery,” did not have the options of working in industry or in tourism. So, after 1964 they left Portugal to take construction jobs in France. The farmers who remained bought tractors to replace their vanished workers.

Just as previous generations of rural Europeans sought paid work off farm, the youth in places like West Africa and South America are now moving to the cities, and quite quickly. Many development experts bemoan this mass migration, even though it is a pro-active way for young people to take their destiny into their own hands, especially if they attend university in the city, before looking for work.

If past experience is any guide, some of the young Africans and South Americans who are now moving to town would stay in their villages, if they could make a decent living, and if they had electricity and other amenities. Life in the countryside will have to provide people with opportunities, or many will simply pack up and leave.

Further reading

Meilleur, Brien A. 1986 Alluetain Ethnoecology and Traditional Economy: The Procurement and Production of Plant Resources in the Northern French Alps. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington.

My own mentor, Bob Netting, wrote a classic ethnography of the Swiss Alps. Like Meilleur, Netting was also impressed with the ecological balance of traditional farming.

Netting, Robert McC. 1981 Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For the changes in Portuguese agriculture, see:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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Photo credits

Photos courtesy of Eric Boa.

Validating local knowledge July 26th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Paul and I have written earlier stories in this blog about the yapuchiris, expert farmer-researcher-extensionists on the semi-arid, high plains of Bolivia. At 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 feet), seasoned farmers know how to observe plants and animals, clouds and stars, to predict the weather, especially to answer the Big Question on their minds: when will the rains start, so I can plant my crop?

All of the yapuchiris know some traditional ways of predicting the weather. Some yapuchiris also write their observations on a special chart they have designed with their agronomist colleagues at Prosuco, an organization in La Paz. The chart, called a Pachagrama, allows the yapuchiris to record the weather each day of the year, just by penciling in a few dots, so they can see if their predictions come true, and how the rains, frosts and hail affect their crops.

It can be daunting to prove the value of local knowledge, but it is worth trying.

Eleodoro Baldivieso is an agronomist with Prosuco, which has spent much of the past year studying the results of the Pachagrama weather-tracking charts. As he explained to me recently, Prosuco took four complete Pachagramas (each one filled out over seven years) containing 42 cases; each case is a field observed over a single season by one of the yapuchiris. Comparing the predicted weather with the recorded weather allowed Prosuco to see if the Pachagramas had helped to manage risk, mainly by planting a couple of weeks early, on time, or two weeks late.

Frost, hail and unpredictable rainfall are the three main weather risks to the potato and quinoa crops on the Altiplano. In October, a little rain falls, hopefully enough to plant a crop, followed by more rain in the following months. Average annual rainfall is only 800 mm (about 30 inches) in the northern Altiplano, and a dry year can destroy the crop.

For the 42 cases the study compared the yapuchiri’s judgement on the harvest (poor, regular, or good) with extreme weather events (like frost), and the planting date (early, middle or late) to see if variations in the planting date (based on weather predictions) helped to avoid losses and bring in a harvest.

The study found that crops planted two weeks apart can suffer damage at different growth stages of the plant. For example, problems with rainfall are especially risky soon after potatoes are planted, affecting crops planted early and mid-season. Frost is more of a risk for early potatoes at the start of the season, and for late potatoes when they are flowering. Hail is devastating when it falls as the mid and late planted potatoes are flowering.

The yapuchiris are often able to accurately predict frost, hail, and rainfall patterns months in advance. Scientific meteorology does a good job predicting such weather a few days away, but not several months in advance. When you plant your potatoes, modern forecasts cannot tell you what the weather will be like when the crop is flowering. Forecasting the weather in a challenging environment is helpful, at least some of the time. Planting two weeks early or two weeks late may help farmers take best advantage of the rain, but then expose the crop to frost or hail. Changing the planting dates can help farmers avoid one risk, but not another.

The weather is so complicated that risk can never be completely managed. And because scientific meteorology cannot predict hail and frost months in advance, local knowledge fills a void that science may never replace.

Previous blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

To see the future

Predicting the weather

Watch the video

Recording the weather

Watch the presentation by Eleodoro Baldivieso (in Spanish)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana and Santos Quispe are the yapuchiris who participated in this research. Thanks to Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, and Sonia Laura of Prosuco for reading and commenting on a previous version of this story. The first two photos are courtesy of Prosuco.

VALIDANDO LOS CONOCIMIENTOS LOCALES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de julio del 2020

Paul y yo hemos escrito historias anteriores en este blog sobre los Yapuchiris, expertos agricultores-investigadores y extensionistas en el Altiplano semiárido boliviano. A los 4000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores experimentados saben cómo observar plantas y animales, nubes y estrellas para predecir el clima, especialmente para responder a la Gran Pregunta en sus mentes ¿cuándo comenzarán las lluvias para yo pueda sembrar mi chacra?

Todos los Yapuchiris conocen algunas formas tradicionales de predecir el tiempo. Algunos Yapuchiris también apuntan sus observaciones en un cuadro especial que han diseñado con sus colegas, los ingenieros agrónomos de Prosuco, una organización en La Paz. El cuadro, llamado Pachagrama, permite a los Yapuchiris registrar el tiempo cada día del año, con sólo dibujar algunos puntos, para que puedan ver si sus predicciones se hagan realidad y como las lluvias, heladas y granizadas afectan sus cultivos.

Puede ser difícil comprobar ese conocimiento local, pero vale la pena intentarlo.

El Ing. Eleodoro Baldivieso, de Prosuco, ha pasado gran parte del año pasado estudiando los resultados de los Pachagramas. Cómo él me explicó hace poco, Prosuco tomó cuatro Pachagramas completos (de siete campañas agrícolas) y 42 casos; cada caso es una parcela observada durante una campaña por uno de los yapuchiris. El comparar el tiempo previsto con el tiempo registrado permitió a Prosuco ver si los Pachagramas habían ayudado a manejar el riesgo, principalmente mediante la siembra temprana (dos semanas antes), intermedia y tardía (dos semanas después).

Las heladas, el granizo y la lluvia impredecible son los tres principales riesgos meteorológicos para los cultivos de papa y quinua en el Altiplano. En octubre cae un poco de lluvia, con la esperanza de que sea suficiente para sembrar un cultivo, seguida hasta marzo por más lluvia. La precipitación media anual es sólo 800 mm en el Altiplano Norte, y un año seco puede destruir la cosecha, lo mismo que un año con mucha lluvia.

Para los 42 casos el estudio comparó la evaluación del Yapchiri de la cosecha (malo, regular, o bueno) con eventos extremos de tiempo (como heladas), con las fechas de siembra (temprano, mediano, o tarde) para ver si el variar la fecha de siembra (basado en el pronóstico del Yapuchiri) ayudó a evitar pérdidas y lograr una cosecha.

El estudio halló que los cultivos sembrados a dos semanas de diferencia pueden sufrir daño en diferentes etapas de crecimiento da las plantas. Por ejemplo, los problemas con las lluvias son especialmente arriesgados poco después de la siembra de la papa, afectando más a la siembra tempran, a principios y mediados de la temporada. Las heladas son más riesgosas para las papas tempranas al comienzo de la temporada, y para las papas tardías justo en la época de floración. El granizo es devastador para las siembras intermedias y tardías, si la papa está en flor.

Los Yapuchiris a menudo son capaces de predecir con certeza las heladas, el granizo y los patrones de lluvia, con meses de antelación. La meteorología científica a menudo puede predecir ese tiempo a unos pocos días, pero con meses de anticipación. Cuando siembras tu papa, el pronóstico moderno no te puede decir cómo será el tiempo cuando tu cultivo está en flor. Pronosticar el tiempo en un entorno desafiante es útil, al menos parte del tiempo. Sembrar dos semanas antes o dos semanas después puede ayudar a los agricultores a aprovechar mejor la lluvia, pero se expone el cultivo a las heladas o granizo, cuando es más vulnerable. Cambiar las fechas de siembra puede ayudar a los agricultores a evitar uno de los riesgos, pero no siempre a todos.

El clima es tan complicado que el riesgo nunca puede ser manejado completamente. Y debido a que la meteorología científica no puede predecir el granizo y las heladas con meses de anticipación, el conocimiento local llena un vacío que la ciencia tal vez nunca reemplace.

Historias previas del blog

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Conocer el futuro

Prediciendo el clima

Ver el video

Hacer un registro del clima

Vea la presentación por Eleodoro Baldivieso (en español)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight. Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana y Santos Quispe son los Yapuchiris que participaron en esta investigación. Gracias a Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, y Sonia Laura de Prosuco por leer y hacer comentaros sobre una versión previa de esta historia. Las primeras dos fotos son cortesía de Prosuco.

Trying it yourself May 24th, 2020 by

Helping to write a script for a farmer training video on vermiwash triggered my interest in trying it out myself, as I began to wonder if ideas from tropical India could work in temperate Belgium.

As the video explains, vermiwash is the liquid that is collected after water passes through compost made by earthworms. It is rich in plant growth hormones, micro-nutrients like iron and zinc, and major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vermiwash increases the number of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil and helps plants to grow healthy.

After showing the problem of declining soil health due to the overuse of agrochemicals, the video quickly moves on to some powerful, motivational interviews by some local farmers in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

“When you want to mix vermicompost with the soil, you need large quantities. But vermiwash can be applied directly to plant leaves, so you need less and you can see the effect on plant growth faster. It is also cheaper than compost,” says farmer Sivamoorthi.

Besides the liquid vermiwash, I had also helped another of our Indian partners, WOTR, develop a video on vermicompost, which is solid, and stronger than normal compost . But, I was more attracted to the idea of making vermiwash, as it requires little space and I could easily use it as a foliar spray on my vegetables, berry shrubs and fruit trees.

At the local hardware store, I bought a barrel with a tap at the bottom. The first drafts of the script mentioned that it is best to fill the bottom of the barrel with small stones, so the tap doesn’t get blocked. I did exactly that. In the final version of the video, this part was removed. When I asked Shanmuga Priya, who made this video, she said: “After I talked to farmers it seems no one is doing this, because after three months they empty the barrel, remove the earthworms and then put the compost on their field. Of course, they don’t want stones to be mixed with the compost.”

Indian farmers just use a small piece of mosquito netting or cotton cloth as a filter. Right, that was a good lesson; farmers always find a way to improve any technique they learn from extension staff. I still have the bottom of my barrel filled with pebbles, and so far so good. I will have to make the extra effort of sorting out the stones when setting up a new batch of vermiwash.

The video says to fill the bottom with some 10-15 centimetres of dried leaves, not green ones, which would slow down decomposition. As I had plenty of dried oak leaves, and even though they decompose slowly, I wondered if they would work, but hey, that’s what I have, so that’s what I will try.

Then the video shows how an equal amount of rice straw is added. Instead, I used wheat straw, as I still have plenty of bundles in the attic of our shed.

The next part was also a little tricky. While the video suggested using 5 to 10 kg of decomposed cow dung, I wondered if the dung of my sheep would work just as well. It was a discussion I had had several times with Indian partners, who always say that only cow dung is a useful source of beneficial microorganisms. I asked a friend of mine, who is soil scientist, and still did not get a clear answer to this. Soil scientists are trained more in the physical and chemical properties of soil and are less familiar with its complex biology. But that is food for another blog story.

After adding some water to the barrel, I collected a few handfuls of earthworms from my compost and put them into the barrel. I would soon see if my set up would work or not. While farmers in India can collect vermiwash after just 10 days, I realised that the early days of spring in Belgium are still too cold, so the worms are not that active yet. Six weeks later, though, we happily collected our first litre of brown vermiwash.

After diluting it with ten litres of water, I sprayed the vermiwash on the leaves of my rhubarb as an experiment, before putting it on any other plants. In just a few days the leaves turned a shiny, dark green. The plants looked so healthy, that neighbours even remarked on it and asked what I had given them.

My wife, Marcella, had been rearing vegetable seedlings in a small glass house, and when the time came to transplant them to the garden, she decided to set up a small experiment. One batch of mustard leaf seedlings would be planted straight in the soil, the other batch she would soak the roots of the seedlings for 15 minutes in pure vermiwash. After all, the video shows that this works with rice seedlings, so why not with vegetable seedlings?

And again, the effect was striking: all of the seedlings dipped in the vermiwash took root quickly, while in the other batch only a fraction did.

As Jeff has written in some earlier blogs, the Covid-19 crisis has stopped people from travelling, affecting many farmers (see: Travelling farmers), students (see: A long walk home) and society at large. It has also forced people to creatively use their time. Like many other people, we have been able to spend more time in the garden, and in our case, we were able try out some of the things we learned from farmers in the global South.

As we tried oak leaves, wheat straw and sheep dung instead of the ingredients used by Indian farmers, we found that vermiwash works as well in Flanders as it does in Tamil Nadu. Good training videos inspire people to experiment with new ideas and adapt these to their own conditions. That is the philosophy and approach of Access Agriculture: using video as a global source of inspiration.

Related blogs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Related videos, freely downloadable from www.accessagriculture.org

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Good microbes for plants and soil

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 aprendí recientemente en un curso impartido por dos biólogos expertos en abejas nativas americanas: Marcia Adler Yáñez del Museo de Historia Natural Gabriel René 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 débiles 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. También usarán la cera de los potes para hacer sus propias celdas de cría 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 científicos

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.

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