Parks gets firsthand look at Cuba’s sweet export
JoAnn Parks took a deep dive into two of her hobbies in an unexpected place. Parks ventured from her residence, south of Cornell, to Cuba, to learn about beekeeping practices of the area and get a firsthand look at history.
Parks first saw information about the trip in the American Bee Journal. She was handed an edition of the magazine while helping with a beekeeping class. When she saw the information about the trip, she remembers thinking, “How cool would that be to go?”
Parks says a trip to Cuba has been part of her bucket list for quite some time.
“The week we were there just happened to be the week Havana was celebrating its 500th anniversary as a capitol,” said Parks.
A self-proclaimed history geek, Parks says when combined with the bees, she was going.
Sixteen people from across the United State made the trek to Cuba, November 9-17. The trip was organized by Transeair Travel, in cooperation with the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture. While they were there, they got to visit a beekeeping research institute and apiaries, as well as experience the culture and history of Cuba.
“We went as a collective group of beekeepers, trying to see why is Cuba so successful with beekeeping,” said Parks.
There were some setbacks, as rules for travel to Cuba have been shifting. At the last minute, she had to change her visa.
However, the group was able to go. Parks said she liked how the group was like a microcosm of the United States, with many different backgrounds and viewpoints, but they all got along with each other well.
Parks says people may not associate bees or honey with Cuba, but says it is an important part of Cuba’s economy and is their fourth largest export.
Parks says Cuba does not have colony collapse, varroa mites, or other issues common in the United States.
“And it (honey) is all certified organic because of the way they do things,” said Parks.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba couldn’t afford to buy pesticides, so they embraced organic farming.
“For the beekeepers, it’s a gold mine,” said Parks.
She says she can’t get her honey certified as organic because she doesn’t know whose fields her bees go to.
Parks also said the beekeepers in Cuba are all professionals and many of them are three generations working together.
“There are no hobby beekeepers like we are here,” said Parks, who normally likes to keep about two hives herself.
Parks also says the bees in Cuba were gentle and were not the Africanized bees she was expecting.
“Most of the beekeepers there didn’t wear gloves,” said Parks. “They just had T-shirts on and some of them would put a veil over their head, some didn’t. I came full armor.”
Parks noticed that even when someone did get stung, the bees didn’t go into a frenzy like her bees do.
She says all of the beekeepers from the United States were required to bring new bee suits, to prevent infection and disease. The country also no longer imports bees to limit the possibility of infection.
“The one big thing that can affect the beekeeping is the hurricanes,” said Parks, especially when the island takes a direct hit.
However, hurricanes were not the biggest issue beekeepers in Cuba face. Parks says the group was blindsided when the local beekeepers said transportation was the biggest challenge. Just as beekeepers in the United States move their bees to pollinate crops, in season, in different parts of the country, they move their bees around the island. A fuel shortage is making the move more difficult for the Cuban beekeepers.
Besides learning more about beekeeping, Parks says she enjoyed the history of the island.
“The buildings down there were just amazing,” said Parks, though some of the buildings were crumbling because the island is unable to get the supplies needed to fix them.
One of Park’s biggest takeaways from the trip, was how kind the people were. She also says the locals were grateful the group went to the interior of the island, instead of staying near the shore, like many tourists do. Parks says the group traveled from one coast to the other and says the island is about 780 miles long.
Parks also said she liked seeing the multi-generational beekeepers, since her father, Louie Sikora, was who introduced her to beekeeping.
She says she would return to Cuba, if she could, especially if there is another bee trip going to a different part of the island.
“It was quite the trip,” said Parks. “I loved it. It was great.”