The first beekeepers in Belize were the ancient Maya. They kept stingless bees, Melipona beecheii, in hives made from hollowed out logs. The entrance hole was made midway between the two ends and the ends were sealed with clay. Honey was harvested one to three times a year: in March, April and in a good year, in December as well. Large apiaries existed in Corozal, Orange Walk and Cayo and honey was one of the chief exports of the Maya state of Chactumal in northern Belize.
Beekeeping with stingless bees continued until the mid 20th century but today only a few hives remain and the population of wild stingless bees is threatened by development.
Beekeeping with Apismelifera began in the Corozal District in 1957 when Tony Espat and Hernan Urbina brought beekeepers from the Yucatan. Several colonies were established at Central Farm as well, but these soon died due to a lack of knowledge in beekeeping. By December 1958 there were 958 colonies in Corozal and Orange Walk Districts and fifteen drums of honey were exported that year.
Beekeeping became established in Belize and grew quickly. By 1959 there were 1,108 colonies in the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts, and colonies were reestablished at Central Farm. In the Cayo District, beekeeping was first started by Noel MacDougall as a hobby in the early seventies with no others taking notice or showing an interest in beekeeping. Then sometime in 1973 Francisco Gutierrez, an underwriter with an insurance company, read an article on ways of increasing one’s income through part-time projects; listed among other things was beekeeping. He then began to inquire about and to seek information on beekeeping until he came in contact with Cecil Turton who was burning with the idea of beekeeping as a way of life but had no knowledge of the subject. His dream was to purchase a number of hives and sub-let to other people who would learn to take care of bees as a means of increasing their income; in 1973 he bought a large number of colonies and sub-let 12 to others.
After the first year of operation many more people were interested in the project, so the idea of a cooperative really became possible. In July 1974 Euri Beekeepers’ Cooperative Society Limited was registered and began its operations. After a few successful years, a part of the membership decided to abandon Euri because of major differences in perspective and policy.
In 1980, the group of beekeepers that broke away got together and organized into another cooperative, Western Beekeepers Cooperative Society Limited. The society started with a total of 23 beekeepers drawn from all walks of life from all over the Cayo District and it operated successfully supplying the domestic market with quality honey. Together with Southern Beekeepers Cooperative they also exported unfiltered, unheated honey to the French and German markets.
In 1998 the industry suffered two major setbacks. First, the widespread spraying of marihuana fields decimated the bee population, especially in the Cayo District, where the loss of bee colonies was massive and beekeepers suffered heavy losses. The second setback was the arrival of the Africanized bees spreading north from Brazil, which further weakened an industry already in trouble. Many beekeepers used to the gentle bees abandoned the activity. In a few years, a thriving industry with a potential to become one of Belize’s main exports had almost disappeared. The lack of an adequate response to both crises was undoubtedly a major factor in its demise.
Many years later, in 2006, a group of beekeepers organized together into the Cayo Quality Honey Producers’ Cooperative. The coop’s vision is to become one of Belize’s main industries, generating gainful employment for our people, especially women and youth, and to contribute to Belize’s foreign exchange earnings through the exportof honey and other hive products. Its members are also committed to protect the forests through beekeeping, to protect honeybees, and to provide customers with a healthy product that is 100% pure and processed under strict sanitary conditions.
Bees play an essential role in ensuring food security worldwide, and Belize has the potential to produce quality honey, beeswax, pollen, and other bee products from our abundant and pristine natural resources. When this is widely understood, it is our hope that the beekeeping industry will receive the attention and the incentives that are necessary to reach its full potential.