Home » Bees, honey and Agave in the northern sierra of La Barca, Jalisco

Bees, honey and Agave in the northern sierra of La Barca, Jalisco

You may have tried tequila or mezcal. But have you ever wondered what is happening in the fields where the Agave plants grow?

My love for nature grew in Jalisco, Mexico, through the teachings of my grandfather, Felipe Aviña Ramírez, who is now 86. He started working with bees with his brothers, but now, since I came back to my hometown because of the pandemic and after getting my undergraduate degree in Biology from the Autonomous University of Baja California, I’m his main helper. 

My father and grandfather inspecting the hives and making sure they are healthy and free of pests. Photograph: Elizabeth García.

My grandfather, who has been working with bees for almost 60 years, is well known for his honey. It’s common to hear people ask: “Don Felipe, do you still have honey?” He tells me, however, things are different now. 

My grandfather, the bees and I live in the town of La Barca, Jalisco, southeast of Guadalajara, on the border with the state of Michoacán. The apiaries are surrounded by tropical dry forest that changes from green, during the summer rains, to brown, at the height of the dry season. This change allowed us to harvest honey twice a year, first in May and then later in October. But the climate and the vegetation have been changing since the 1980s. So much so that fellow beekeepers have moved to the north, specifically to the Jaliscan Highlands, in their search for mesquite. Even there, we hear this year’s harvest has been lower than before. In our case, bees don’t produce enough honey for us to collect in spring. We leave the little they make for their own sustenance. We, on the other hand, only harvest in October. 

And it’s not only the climate that’s been changing. My grandfather and I can see the hills are different. In the past, the plains where we now keep our bees were used for agriculture while the vegetation from the surrounding hills was spared from clearing. Now, with the cultivation of Agave for the production of tequila, the skirts of those same hills have turned blue. The clearing is also more common on the hills and this affects the production of honey and our community. What will happen if we have less untouched vegetation? This impacts our ecosystems as we lose our traditions.

Fields of Agave close the apiaries. Photograph: Elizabeth García.

A tree which I hold close to my heart grows near one of our three apiaries: a massive copal (Bursera bipinnata). It caught my attention one day as I heard a constant buzz. European honeybees and other species of bees flirted with its tiny white flowers. The resin from copal has been used by local indigenous groups since Pre-Hispanic times for rituals and ceremonies. Now, as beekeepers, we use it in the smoker to calm the bees and we believe that it may help prevent infectious outbreaks in the hive. This is only one example of what we might lose if we don’t know what resources we have. 

The cultivation of Agave is fueling the loss of biodiversity and impacting the livelihood of local beekeepers like my grandfather and I. The use of herbicides in the fields of Agave is affecting us directly because without plants killed by these chemicals, our honeybees have limited sources of food. And the relationship goes both ways: Even when bees don’t realise it, they move the genes of the next generation of plants surrounding the apiary. 

“[I] have seen many wild hives in the clefts of trees growing close to the apiaries,” my grandfather tells me. “[The bees] keep the plants alive each generation and one can tell which plants are their favourites. [C]opal, mesquite, huizache, papelillo, are among the trees [they prefer] during the dry season, as well as arborescent prickly pears and small plants that flower without waiting for the rains.” 

Using technology to share my passion for plants

Since I came back to La Barca, I take closer notice of the animals and plants that I find on my way to the apiaries, whether walking or driving. These short journeys inspired me to start a herbarium in my house to keep track of the vegetation. I have seen “cardones” (Stenocereus quetaroensis), resurrection plants (Selaginella lepidophylla), ferns (Myriopteris myriophylla), little may flowers or “mayitos” (Zephyrantes fosteri), “papelillos” (Euphorbia tanquahuete), “copales” (Bursera bipinnata), bromeliads (Tillandsia recurvata), among others. There are numerous plants and a broader expedition would be ideal to get more information about diversity. The apiaries sit in different locations of the hill, allowing me to see the difference in microclimate and vegetation. 

As biologists, we’re sometimes expected to know the names of all species, but when starting a project in a region with which we’re unfamiliar with, this will be unlikely. Fortunately, we now have tools like Naturalista, an app that allows scientists and non-specialists to identify species. Through this app, I created the photographic project Biodiversity of La Barca Jalisco (Biodiversidad de La Barca Jalisco) — several of those photographs have come at the expense of bee stings on my knees! 

Starting my own herbarium has been a great way to take a closer look at the smallest traits of plants, to build the patience and care needed to safeguard these organisms. I’d like to use these specimens to start an outreach programme in my community. 

My grandfather’s knowledge has fostered not only my own curiosity and interest in nature; it’s also created an imprint on other people. This is the case of Fernando, another beekeeper from the area.  

“When I was a kid, around 11 years old, I met Don Felipe, your grandfather, who showed me the greatness of nature, the benefits we get from it and the peacefulness that it gives us. I’ve noticed how bees produce less honey now as the landscape is transformed by agriculture, by the use of pesticides and species of invasive grass,” Fernando tells me. 

A woman in the field

Even when my grandfather and I share the love for nature, sometimes we have different opinions. At a certain point he questioned my abilities in the field for being a woman. But instead of fighting, I’ve slowly showed him that I can work either in the office or in the hills with the bees. As a biologist, I’ve worked long days in the field, walking long distances and under high temperatures surrounded by hungry mosquitoes, bitten by mites and getting bee stings. We women can do the same as men. 

Working with my grandfather has taught me to appreciate a simple way of life, growing my knowledge not only from books, as I have done during my training as a biologist, but also through experience; to rest on the rocks, watch closely and listen. Only by doing so can you know your space and how to look after it. 

Although my grandfather started beekeeping with the idea of growing it to become a family business, for me it’s more than that. This activity not only brings us closer to nature; it has also given us the chance to share among family or with colleagues in the apiaries. Work and laughter go hand in hand in the cellar when we harvest honey and arrange the material. What a wonderful feeling it is to see the amazement and interest of other people for something so important for the world: bees and their relationship with the natural environment.

From what I’ve learned in the field, in books, and through my grandfather’s teachings, as well as from people working in Fauna del Noroeste A.C. and the San Diego Natural History Museum, I plan to continue with my scientific training in conservation genetics. I want to understand interactions and their importance for ecosystems. 

Maintaining this beekeeping tradition will only be possible if bees have flowers to visit. For this to happen it may be necessary to transform cultivation practices — especially for Agave

Elizabeth García is a biologist from the Autonomous University of Baja California. She was an intern at The San Diego Natural History Museum where she worked in the Herpetology department. By studying the collections, she started looking at the bees from her own community with different eyes. In the future, she’d like to work on conservation genetics projects. Follow her on Instagram as egaiav and on Naturalista as egarciaav.

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