Queen Bees and Sustainable Coffee
Writing by Nora Burkey
Customers of Bee Our Guest Wraps are most likely already well aware of the importance of bees. While the wind and other species, such as birds, bats, and a variety of insects can pollinate plants, bees are by far the best pollinators. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “bees of all sorts pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States, and one out of every four bites of food people take is courtesy of bee pollination.” In addition to feeding us, bees heal us. The honey that bees create is nutrient-rich and has a variety of medicinal qualities. Like the beeswax used for Bee Our Guest Wraps, honey is antibacterial—and it also does a better job at soothing sore throats naturally than your leading cough syrup or lozenge.
Unfortunately, worldwide pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change are affecting bee populations around the globe, which leads not only to a decrease in honeybee by-products such as pollen, beeswax, and propolis, but a loss of billions of dollars annually as farmers are forced to self-pollinate, while seeing a decrease in the productivity of their crops. Perhaps nowhere is this decrease in productivity more evident than in the coffee lands.
Coffee is a tropical flowering tree shrub grown in over 70 countries worldwide—including the United States. Hawaii and the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico have long been coffee-producers, and recently, some farmers and investors in Southern California, like singer Jason Mraz, began growing the first coffee trees in the contiguous United States. But as SoCal grows its first coffee trees, much of the world is losing its ability to produce coffee. According to Hivos, some coffee-producing countries, like Brazil, India, and Uganda, could lose up to 60% of their land that is suitable for coffee production. Meanwhile, they estimate that “in nearly all countries where coffee production is expanding rapidly – e.g. Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Peru – new coffee crop lands are mostly created by deforestation.” And we are not talking about a small amount of land: to make way for new coffee areas, it is estimated that 548 soccer/football pitches would be deforested every day!
Hivos further reports that full-sun, intensified coffee production began in the 1970s, meaning that monoculture has emerged as the dominant model over the past 50 years. This model not only uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it also destroys native habitats and the potential of ecosystem services from native shade trees, such as “carbon sequestration, watershed protection, and biodiversity conservation.”
Of course, a loss of trees also means fewer bees. Suitable coffee areas that are well-managed as agroforestry systems, however, will have high bee diversity, but those areas that are deforested to make way for intensive coffee-growing will lose bee populations. While full-sun coffee may produce a higher yield in the short-term, in the long-term, costs per hectare will increase for farmers while productivity will decrease due to higher temperatures, strained soils and—you guessed it—a loss of those friendly pollinators.
Meanwhile, throughout Latin America, as climate change decreases the areas suitable for coffee production (exacerbated further when even more areas are deforested), it is estimated that bee richness will reduce by 65% as well. So, for fans of Bee Our Guest Wraps and of bees in general, it is important to look for coffee that is grown with bee-friendly farm management practices. That means shade-grown, often organic coffee. Not only does coffee grown in this way save native and naturalized bee populations, it also benefits producer livelihoods. With bee visitation, coffee crop yields are estimated to increase by over 50%, providing more income to a population that lives in poverty (it is believed that 25 million smallholder families worldwide depend on coffee for a livelihood, with at least half of these families living below the poverty line).
For those uninitiated into the great world of café, coffee beans are actually the seeds of the cherries that grow on the coffee tree shrub. Inside each coffee cherry are two seeds that, when roasted, turn into coffee beans we can grind and mix with hot water to create the caffeinated beverage many of us know and love—and cannot live without. With bee visitation to coffee tree shrubs, those cherries become 7% heavier and 25% plumper. They also drop to the ground less often, and the coffee tree’s flowers are more abundant.
This incredible coffee and bee symbiosis is not lost on small-scale farmers worldwide, who have begun to adopt bee-friendly management practices, such as improved irrigation, and engage in beekeeping as an alternative source of income. Las Diosas, or, “The Goddesses,” is a group of female small-scale agricultural producers in Northern Nicaragua. As a cooperative comprising over 220 members, they are committed to the development and interests of rural Nicaraguan women. Together, they work to improve their economic opportunities, promote agro-ecology, and protect the rights of rural women. In addition to coffee, they grow and sell hibiscus and a variety of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and also make and sell jams, hibiscus wine and tea, and roasted coffee to sell in local farmers’ markets.
In 2018, they began to train their members as beekeepers, starting with only 10 producers. With financial support from Bee Our Guest non-profit partner The Chain Collaborative, Las Diosas led a training about hive maintenance, honey harvesting, and other beekeeping basics. As a result of the project, in total, the first Las Diosas beekeepers strengthened 48 existing hives and established 40 new hives. One producer in particular, Luisa Irias Olivas, produced 34 liters in the three months alone following the training, whereas in the 12 months prior, she had only harvested 10 liters. This translated into an increase in income from $45.00 USD in 2017 as a result of her honey production to $153.00 USD in the first three months of 2018. This might not seem like very much, but in a region of Nicaragua where most people earn less per day than the cost of cup of Starbucks coffee, $153.00 in three months is a big boost.
Luisa reflected that the increase in income allowed her to purchase medicine for her family—something she was not able to do previously. She also said this about working as a beekeeper with her fellow female producers: “Before this project, all I heard was that beekeeping was for men. But now we know that we as women are capable. We are breaking down the gender barriers in our country, little by little.” Indeed, in addition to providing a market for their member farmers, Las Diosas places great importance on the empowerment of their female farmer members. Among other activities, the cooperative provides gender awareness workshops to demonstrate that rural women, and not only men, are the drivers of local economies. After all, it is the queen bee that makes or breaks the hive and makes the world go round. Without female bees and a commitment to pro-climate farm management, that buzz from coffee will be harder to come by, food will be scarcer and more expensive, and we will lose a key ingredient to our natural medicines.
So, as you continue to Bee Our Guest, make sure you also go forth and pollinate the companies that support bees, sell bee-friendly coffee, and champion women-led enterprise. Our world, and our bees, depend on it.
 “Why are bees important?” U.S. Geological Survey, https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/why-are-bees-important?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products.
 Hannah Vickers, ed., “Why Are Bees Important? And How You Can Help Them,” Woodland Trust, July 17, 2018, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/07/why-are-bees-important-and-how-you-can-help-them/.
 Panhuysen, S. and Pierrot, J. (2018). Coffee Barometer 2018. Found at https://www.hivos.org/assets/2018/06/Coffee-Barometer-2018.pdf.
 Pablo Imbach et al., “Coupling of Pollination Services and Coffee Suitability under Climate Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 39 (November 2017): pp. 10438-10442, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1617940114.
 David Ward Roubik, “Tropical Agriculture: The Value of Bees to the Coffee Harvest,” Nature 417 (2002): 708–708, https://repository.si.edu/handle/10088/1688.