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The Mexican honey co-op finding sweet success in a volatile sector – Positive News

The honey industry isn’t all buzzing bees and rolling hills. Producers have a whole host of dilemmas to deal with, from climate change to an influx of fake honey. Here’s how one co-op is rising above the challenges

Seventy-three-year-old Vitaliano Cauich has worked with bees for more than half of his life – and he loves them. “To me, bees are very important,” he explains, “because I enjoy taking care of them.

“When I come to my apiary, I feel so happy, so I visit them daily. Sometimes, even in my free time, I come here. During the bloom time, I come only for the smell of the flowers the bees are visiting and I feel content when I see the bees working. Seeing the wonderful bees working in order – it cheers me up to work.”

In the rainforests of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, beekeeping has long been a way of life for Cauich’s ancestors. Mayan civilisations revered the native Xunan-Kab bee, carving them into stone at temples and making them an integral part of rituals.

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Even the process of beekeeping pays the insects the utmost respect. Housed in small wooden boxes called cajas, they are left in areas with abundant flowering plants. There they forage and produce honey at their own pace.

However, making a living as a 21st century beekeeper is not easy, despite Mexico being the world’s fifth largest exporter of honey.  A study back in 2005 even went as far as to say both the native bees and traditional ways of production were heading towards extinction.

For Miguel Ángel Munguìa Gil, general manager at Educe – a co-operative focused on high-quality production using traditional methods – it’s a multi-layered challenge.

The Mexican honey co-op finding sweet success in a volatile sector

Vitaliano Cahuich holds a bottle of the honey that he produces with Educe. Image: Shared Interest

“Pressure on land, prices rising and falling to the extreme, adulterated honeys in the world market, excessive rainfall or drought, increased production costs, the threat of organised crime, and emigration …” he reels off a long list.

The climate crisis is one of the biggest concerns for producers like Cauich, with the peninsula experiencing huge changes during the last few decades. Researchers have already noticed an increase in extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes and excessive rain.

“In the past, there was a very marked period when the plants and trees flowered,” explains Gil. “Nowadays the flowers that were meant to come out in February don’t open until June, or don’t open at all. In which case, there’s no nectar. And then the ones that were supposed to have opened later, open early or not at all.”

The Mexican honey co-op finding sweet success in a volatile sector

Miguel Angel Munguia Gil from Educe. Image: Shared Interest

Even for conscientious consumers, there are pitfalls, A 2023 survey by the European Commission found that every honey product tested from UK supermarket shelves had been bulked out with sugar syrup. Almost half of all products tested across the continent failed the test – something that became the first focus of Netflix’s docuseries Rotten, which delved into the darker side of food supply chains.

This challenge, in particular, “is something that we have to work hard to fight”, says Gil, as adulterated products have a direct impact on already volatile prices. But that’s where co-operatives like his come in.

Educe, founded in 1997, brings together 800 beekeepers who work within 40 individual co-operatives. By teaming up, they can negotiate a better price for their products without the need for an intermediary who would take a cut. Similarly, certifying to organic and Fairtrade standards justifies higher price points.

The Mexican honey co-op finding sweet success in a volatile sector

María Colli, a beekeeper who has worked with Educe for four years. Image: Shared Interest

María Colli, a beekeeper who has worked with Educe for four years, says being a member has helped both her and her community. “The motivation, why I was interested in joining Educe, was the price. It’s a good price for us,” she explains. But it’s not about cash alone.

“The other thing is that they give us workshops on gender and the environment: these workshops, they’ve opened our eyes,” she says. “This is a very small village with a fair bit of machoism. It’s a pleasure for myself and the other women to have them – we used to be embarrassed to voice opinions or speak up, but not any more.”

My motivation for joining was the price. The other thing is that they give us workshops on gender and the environment: they’ve opened our eyes

Colli also points to help in diversifying their products: she’s since branched out into honey throat sweets, skin creams and cough sweets.

The co-operative also works with Shared Interest, an ethical investment cooperative that provides capital to smallholders at fair rates. “The loans we provide to Educe enable them to pre-finance their harvest and give the beekeepers a year-round payment for their honey,” explains Patricia Alexander, Shared Interest’s managing director.

In other words, the cooperative buys the produce from individual producers before it’s eventually sold to clients around the world. Any surplus profits are returned to farmers to help with investment, training and development.

And, according to Andrés Munguía Zarco, Educe’s treasurer, it’s working. “We are seeing improvements in the income for the beekeepers,” he says. “Many people don’t have to migrate if they can earn a living here. They can stay and then the families keep together in their communities.”

The Mexican honey co-op finding sweet success in a volatile sector

Andres Munguía Zarco from Educe. The organisation brings together 800 beekeepers from 40 co-operatives. Image: Shared Interest

More broadly, previous threats of extinction have so far failed to materialise, in no small part thanks to co-operatives like Educe. And for beekeepers like Jorge Alberto Chan López, it allows them to do the thing that’s most important to them – look after the bees.

“We try to keep them as good as possible, for them to be taken care of and not mistreated,” he says, “because they are insects that contribute to our environment, to nature, and to life.”


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