What exactly is the elixir of the gods—is it coffee or honey? It’s actually a toss-up for me. There is something heavenly about both.
But they go hand in hand when I think about beekeeping. My preferred area for hives in Honduras is in the coffee zones. By far my hives have produced much more honey on the coffee farms in the mountains compared with the valley below them. These areas maintain much more abundant vegetation and a variety of vegetation that lends itself to the production of honey
Ripening berries on a coffee plant.
I’ve often mused that if I could do things over in life, I would first study agriculture instead of print journalism (or better yet, maybe it should be in addition to journalism). And after my experiences with living in Honduras, I would become a coffee farmer (and of course still be a beekeeper).
Agriculture, in one form or another, always played a part in my life. I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the heart of dairy farm/cheese factory country. Everything around my childhood home was hay fields, corn fields and dairy cows. My parents didn’t have a farm but I would work on my uncle’s during the summers making hay. Another uncle actually owned a small cheese factory. What my family did have was my mom’s huge garden and a bunch of rabbits. Raspberry patches and apple trees were scattered around the property. In the spring we would tap the maple trees and make syrup.
When I joined Peace Corps in 1991 I changed rural Wisconsin for rural Honduras. The cows turned into bees for me. Honduras has lots of corn (love those tortillas) but the hay fields became rice, beans and…coffee.
In general there is something noble about the farming profession. There is a pride one has gets from being able to produce from the earth. But there is a sort of a mystic added for me when thinking about growing coffee. There’s a difference when the farming involves something as delicious as coffee. Maybe it’s also the uniqueness of it compared with the corn and cows of my childhood—it’s something totally different.
It is hard work, no doubt about that. It’s not mechanized. It’s manual labor. Beekeeping is the same. But with both of them it is the pride you feel when the harvest comes in and you can see the fruits of all your efforts. You soon forget about all the sweat and stings. Having those sacks of coffee and bottles of honey makes it worth the pain and effort.
Workers with their day’s coffee pickings. The sacks of cherries are measured with a container that is approximately four gallons. An experienced picker can make as much as three times a day’s wage for doing normal labor on a coffee farm, such as pruning or fertilizing.
Coffee and Beekeeping
Instead of saying “coffee and beekeeping,” I should probably say “coffee with beekeeping.” Having hives in a coffee zone is usually a good idea for the beekeeper. It is an excellent area for honey production. Having hives on a coffee farm is an even better idea for the coffee farmer—because of the pollination benefits and for diversification reasons. A quick internet search will confirm this.
All the scientific studies I read indicate that pollination is beneficial to coffee production. Coffee organizations, such as the Instituto Hondureno de Café (IHCAFE), also realize this and have promoted beekeeping with the coffee producers of Honduras. Although coffee doesn’t directly require the pollination of its flowers, the presence of the bees can help to increase the production by anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent, depending on what scientific study you read. Whatever the increase, all are important to a small farmer’s billfold.
The pollination can also help create a more uniform seed formation and increased the size of bean. Both can assure a more quality coffee and potentially increase the farmers’ earnings.
Top bar hives in my apiary on a coffee farm in the mountains above the town where I live in Honduras. Marcos, the owner of the coffee plantation and my associate with the apiary, has mentioned that he has noted an increase in production since we started the bees.
There has also been a push for the diversification of coffee farms. The price of coffee fluctuates greatly for most producers. The years with low prices unfortunately seem to be much more common than the years with good prices. The coffee production also tends to fluctuate, alternating between a high production one year and a lower production the next. The farmers don’t always have the high prices coincide with their high production.
Honey can give them a needed extra income without taking time away from the coffee. Honey tends to be more stable with the yearly production fluctuating much less. The prices don’t go down in Honduras--if nothing else they increase. The production can also be bottled and sold little by little over a period of months, maximizing the earnings from it and assuring that a steady income is entering into the family’s budget weekly. Due to the nature of coffee, it is usually sold all at once. This means that the money is often spent all at once also. Coffee is good for buying the big things a family may need, such as a new roof or even a truck. Honey is good for the small things, like weekly groceries or new shoes for the children.
Honey harvest on the coffee farm. Due to the abundance of flowering vegetation, the bees can easily fill their boxes from one end to the other with combs. Half of this can be honey.
My coffee-farm beekeeping
My most productive apiaries have always been located in a coffee zone. I have my main yard right now in association with a Honduran friend, Marcos, the owner of the coffee plantation where it is located.
We started the apiary about ten years ago. The first twelve hives were filled with swarms from feral colonies in the area of the farm. We actually got honey from some of them that year—enough to cover the initial start-up costs of the apiary. The swarms we caught in October and November grew enough to give us a small harvest before the rains came at the end of May.
Here I’m hanging a trap hive in a guama tree (Inga sp.) that is used as shade for the coffee. Swarms looking for a new nesting site enter the box, giving the beekeeper a free hive. I have a lot of success using trap hives—this is basically how I start all my new hives. Below the tree branches are the tops of coffee plants.
The apiary is set up to hold about 40 hives—more than enough for this area. It is on one of the few relatively flat areas on the farm, near a steam that forms one of its borders. Tall liquidambar trees along the stream make too much shade for the coffee to grow well there. For the bees, however, it is more than adequate. This is one of the positive aspects of beekeeping. The apiary can be set up on marginal land, leaving the good land for crops.
Most of the hives are in a single line just outside the tree line. There are some inside the trees but they don’t tend to do as well. The trees seem to trap the humidity during the rainy season and the shade keeps this area from drying out well.
My top bar hives are over four feet long, with between 30 and 35 bars. The bees in the valley never completely fill their boxes. In the mountains they can have them full of combs from one end to the other. You can remove the end bar and have a full comb of honey right there.
We have to be a bit careful when we decide to harvest or check the hives. The bees are Africanized so they can get very defensive. There can be no workers in the area of the hives. It’s better if they are working on the other side of the farm. There is one guy, however, who always needs to say something to Marcos. He comes as far as the edge of the coffee where he crouches down and yells something to Marcos—and picks up a couple stings.
The flowers begin around Christmas with the tatascan (Perymenium grande), a native tree that becomes covered with yellow flowers. It blooms for almost a month with flowers coming and going. Another native tree that is very useful for honey production is what the local farmers call zapotillo.
One interesting tree in the high coffee zones is liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), not so much because of the flowers (although bees do visit them) but for the propolis made from its sap. The people use the tree’s sap for medicinal purposes, such as for stomach and skin problems. The propolis from these hives has a very distinct smell because of the liquidambar resin the bees collect. There is the possibility of a niche market for this propolis.
Then finally there are the trees the farmers themselves plant. An excellent nectar source is the guama (Ingas sp.), which is planted as shade for the coffee. There are also a number of fruit trees that Marcos and other coffee farmers plant, such as oranges, lemons and guayaba.
Meliferous trees found in coffee zones: Tatascan (Perymenium grande), upper left; coffee, upper right; guama (Ingas sp.), lower left; and guayaba (genus Psidium), lower right.
One of the last flowers during the honey production season is the coffee itself. One of my favorite times to visit the coffee farm is when the plants are blooming. It reminds me a bit of winter since the flowers make it appear that it has snowed on the plants. And if you stand still and listen the whole farm sounds like a hive. The buzzing of the bees comes at you from all sides. Whatever honey the bees make from the coffee usually stays with them for the dearth period.
Coffee plants flowering.
Version in Spanish (versión en Español) in my companion blog "Reflexiones Sobre Apicultura."