ALBERTO QUESADA loads a flatbed lorry in a field in the middle of the night for a two-hour drive to the dense mangrove swamps on the Gulf of Batabanó. “It’s important that they wake up in their new habitat,” he says of his cargo of bees. In the summer his 30,000 hive-dwellers feast on coastal flowers; in the autumn they forage on milkweed and morning glories further north. Around October it is off to the mountains, as Cuba’s trees reach their prime, before he brings the bees back to his farm about an hour’s drive from Havana. There, they have their pick of palm, mango and avocado trees, fresh vegetables—an uncommon luxury in Cuba—and a garden teeming with sunflowers, lilies and bougainvilleas. The diets of these well-travelled insects are more diverse than that of most Cubans.
It is good to be a bee in Cuba. Beekeepers elsewhere lose around 20% of their colony in the winter. Climate change, parasites, the intensification of pesticide use, urbanisation and an obsession with tidiness are causing colonies to collapse. “We mow our lawns and trim our hedges so much that there are now fewer places even for wild bees to nest,” says Norman Carreck of the British-based International Bee Research Association.
Communism has done Cuba few favours but it has proved a boon for its bees. Impoverished farmers cannot afford pesticides. A lack of modern equipment and little economic incentive to farm mean much of the island’s vegetation is wild in a way that keeps bees well nourished and produces high-quality honey.
While honey production in most countries has taken a hit along with hives, Cuba’s healthy bees have been busy. The population is growing by an average of 7,000 hives a year, each yielding around 52kg of honey in 2017, double the average from American hives. Although nine-tenths of total production, around 10,000 tonnes last year, is managed by private farmers like Mr Quesada, they are obliged to sell it to the government at a little over $600 a tonne. It is then exported, mostly to Europe, where it fetches $4,600 a tonne for ordinary honey and $14,000 for the 16% that counts as organic. Were a costly certification process not required, much more could fetch such a premium.
Cuba’s honey industry is tiny compared with that of world leaders (bees in China, the biggest producer, make over 500,000 tonnes a year) but it is a valuable agricultural export. And despite the state reaping most of the rewards, farmers, who profit from selling some honey to fellow Cubans, are keen to expand.
In anticipation the government has opened a new bottling facility that will increase production capacity to 15,000 tonnes a year, and plans to sell more organic honey and by-products such as beeswax. But high-quality hives need to be mobile. Cuba’s terrible roads and scarce fuel do not help. Even the wood and netting required to build hives are hard to come by. All these will need to improve to keep the business abuzz.