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For a beekeeping couple in Costa Rica, pesticides are killing the buzz

  • For decades, Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa and Andrea Mora Montero have kept Melipona stingless bees in their garden, a task that is becoming more difficult.
  • Their home has become surrounded by plantations growing monocultures of pineapple, oil palm and cassava.
  • When these crops are sprayed with pesticides, the couple’s bees often die. They worry the fumes may also affect the health of their children.
  • The two beekeepers have now initiated legal proceedings to save these native pollinators in Costa Rica, a country that despite its environmentally friendly reputation has one of the highest rates of pesticide use in the world.

IZTARU, Costa Rica — “This simple wooden beehive is 20 years old. It was the first little bee house I ever made. I call it a relic; it’s sacred to me,” Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa, 63, says as he wanders through his garden filled with bee-friendly flowers and fruit trees. He now has 50 hives housing several different species of native Melipona stingless bees.

However, just a few short steps from his home, this idyllic scene comes to an end: vast swaths of land are covered with monoculture fields of cassava.

“Our neighbor uses too many poisons,” Valverde Azofeifa says. “If it continues, everything we’ve been trying so hard to conserve over the last two decades will be lost. It’s so hard to see our bees dying. Six months ago, we began a legal battle to save them.”

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Valverde Azofeifa lives in the village of Iztarú, 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside the district of Guápiles in northeastern Costa Rica. This region, just two hours from the border with Nicaragua, has seen an increase in monoculture production. Right next to Valverde Azofeifa’s garden are 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of cassava, and just 3 km (1.9 mi) away, immense fields of pineapple stretch as far as the eye can see.

Melipona beekeepers Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa, 63, and Andrea Mora Montero, 37, with their children, Valeria, 19, and Kevin, 11. In their garden in Iztarú, Costa Rica, they have 50 hives that are home to seven different species of the Melipona stingless bee that are native to Central America. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

“The Meliponas are in danger,” he says. “Many forests have been cut down to create pastures and fields for crops. We are surrounded by African palm and pineapple and there is a field of cassava right next door. Every time they use pesticides, our bees die because they are collecting poisoned pollen.”

More than two decades ago, Valverde Azofeifa married Andrea Mora Montero. They share a passion for these ancestral insects of Central America; stingless bees were considered gods by the Maya people. Together, Guillermo and Andrea embarked on this project to conserve the native bees. In their garden they have seven species of Melipona stingless bee, which are particularly crucial for the pollination of tropical fruit trees. The different bees produce different types of honey, from the largest species, Melipona costaricensis, to the smallest, Plebeia frontalis, as well as solitary bees that search for a place to rest in hollow bamboo canes.

Saving the Melipona bees is a real passion, and the couple dedicate all their time to their quest. But recently, their mission became a battle.

“Two years ago, our neighbour began spraying the cassava with pesticides,” Valverde Azofeifa says. “Since then, we’ve lost half of our hives. Some are even dying now, from the latest spraying.” As he speaks, he opens one of the hives of the Tetragonisca angustula bee, his wife’s favorite species, which recently died. The purple flowers painted on the outside of the hive open to reveal a brown shapeless mass made of wax and pollen.

Melipona beekeeper Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa checking one of his Mariola beehives. The bees recently died after the latest round of pesticide spraying on his neighbor’s cassava plantation. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

“In the last six months we have asked for help from various institutions,” says Mora Montero, wearing her bee earrings. She lists them: the National Animal Health Service; the Ministry for Agriculture and Livestock, or MAG; and the Agrarian Court in Guápiles.

“The officials from MAG say they are unfamiliar with what we do, so we’re now waiting for one of their representatives to come and learn about beekeeping,” Mora Montero says. “That way they can understand what measures they need to impose on our neighbor. We feel that nobody really recognizes the importance of the bees; we’re fighting this battle alone. It makes me so sad to see the Meliponas die.”

Pineapple plantations

“We planted the garden with bee-friendly flowers so the bees can stay here to feed, rather than have to collect pollen from the neighboring cassava, or travel over to the pineapples,” Valverde Azofeifa says, showing the variety of flowers in their garden: tiny sunflowers, Christ thorn (Euphorbia milii) and different types of basil, nestled in among others.

“Over on the horizon, there was once a mountain covered with virgin forest. Five years ago, they brought in a digger and cleared huge areas of it. They felled the trees with no forestry control at all. We managed to rescue one hive, but then they cleared everything and gave it over to pineapple,” Valverde Azofeifa says.

Bee-friendly plants such as Christ thorn (Euphorbia milii), sunflowers and cow tongue (Echium stenosiphon) decorate the garden of beekeepers Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa and Andrea Mora Montero. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Loss of habitat has a huge impact on bees; a lack of plants and flowers means reduced food sources and less space to build their hives. This can lead to the disappearance of whole species, as well as wider environmental impacts.

“Carving up the land into fields, the loss of ecological niches, climate change which impacts flowers, the use of agricultural chemicals — all these things threaten the existence of the bees we have here in Costa Rica,” says Mariana Acuña Cordero, a biologist and expert on the country’s native bees. “There are around 700 different species in the country — from the exotic to the native as well as solitary bees — but we have no studies on exact numbers or on the influence of variables that lead to the death of bees.”

Despite the fact that the country has managed to maintain or even increase levels of forest cover, pressures from monoculture production, urbanization and the loss of forests are threatening the favorable conditions for the bees.

The latest data from REDD+, the U.N. program on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in tropical forest countries, estimates that over the past three years, around 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres) of primary forest has been destroyed per year in Costa Rica. This figure is supported by data from Global Forest Watch. The greatest increase came from the loss of smaller areas of forest that measure less than 1 hectare (2.5 acres).

A Mariola stingless bee collecting pollen from a small sunflower. This is just one of the bee-friendly plants that Melipona beekeepers Guillermo and Andrea have planted in their garden. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

“We’ve seen a growth in activities that we refer to as forest degradation,” says Héctor Arce Benavides, director of the REDD+ program in Costa Rica. “These activities refer to the extraction of biomass while the land use remains the same. We’re talking about small areas of forest that are very difficult to evaluate using satellite images, or the extraction of large trees around the edges of the forest.”

These piecemeal instances of deforestation added up. Costa Rica saw a near doubling of greenhouse gas emissions, Benavides says: “From 2018 to 2019, we went from 1.3 million tons per year to 2.5 million.”

In an email to Mongabay Latam, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy suggested the monocultures are not a factor in the loss of forest. “Monocultures do not play a huge role in this aspect of deforestation,” the ministry wrote. “The main crops are established in areas that have been defined for many years. These are not significant vehicles for deforestation.”

An ocean of pineapples

From Mora Montero and Valverde Azofeifa’s bee sanctuary you can see the vast monoculture fields of pineapple running alongside a potholed road toward Guápiles. As you continue along the road, you encounter oil palms, a private airfield, followed by the pineapples that cover both sides of the road like a huge green blanket, separated into orderly lines. The tropical midday sun lights up the leaves. It’s a green desert with no laborers, just a spraying machine passing along with its wide arms sprinkling pesticide. The pineapples continue all the way to the Nicaraguan border, approximately 160 km (100 mi) away.

Three kilometers from the beekeepers’ home, monoculture fields of pineapple begin, extending as far as the Nicaraguan border. In the field, a machine sprays pesticide. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

“The state just isn’t there to control the effect of the monoculture expansion on the environment and the cost to human health,” says Tania Rodriguez Echavarría, a professor of political ecology at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) who is studying extractivism in the border regions of the country. “The Costa Rica brand is a very superficial green stamp; if you even just lightly scratch the surface, the incongruencies are there for all to see.”

In these regions, pineapple in particular has crept into protected areas of Costa Rica, like Tortuguero National Park and the Costa Rica Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque), an important wetlands sanctuary.

“The pineapple growers have expanded their area, edging into protected zones,” says Fernando Ramírez Muñoz, a researcher in toxic substances at the National University. “They have drained and dried out wetlands to grow their crops, particularly near Caño Negro and the region bordering Nicaragua.”

According to the most recent analysis from the Monitoring System for Land Use and Cover Change in Productive Landscapes (MOCUPP), pineapple crops were responsible for the loss of more than 343 hectares (848 acres) of tree cover between 2017 and 2018.

For the bees, the deadly and non-deadly effects of the pesticides used in monoculture production are evident, as on Mora Montero and Valverde Azofeifa’s plot. Johan Van Veen, director of the Center for the Investigation of Tropical Beekeeping at the National University, says the pesticides have two effects: “The bees carry the poison directly to their hives with a high level of mortality [but] there is also an indirect effect because [the pesticides] eliminate many of the foods that [the bees] need throughout the year … Unfortunately, despite the image of being a green country that supports ecotourism, Costa Rica has a high use of pesticides that really affect the bees.”

Three kilometers from the beekeepers’ home, monoculture fields of pineapple begin, extending as far as the Nicaraguan border. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Since 2007 there has been a process in place to register the pesticides used in agriculture. The agriculture ministry says that through this registration, it aims to “endorse the use of pesticides with acceptable environmental risks to prevent any effect on the environment.” Yet despite this, studies by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) show that Costa Rica has one of the highest pesticide use rates in the world, at more than 25 kilograms per cultivated hectare, or about 88 pounds per acre.

“The race to expand monoculture production generates a lot of money,” says Ramírez Muñoz, who is also a member of the PAN. “What suffers, however, are the forests — the secondary forests first and foremost, but the primary ones, too.”

He describes deforestation as happening gradually, almost sneakily. First, the trees are felled to extract the valuable wood. The land is then cultivated with crops. This also happens with primary forests; after the valuable timber is extracted, it becomes secondary forest, which is then easier to convert to agricultural use. “Before we know it, it’s been given over to a monoculture,” Ramírez Muñoz says.

“Often the pressure to use pesticides is related to the increase in productivity,” he adds. “The consequences are soil degradation, air and water pollution and the loss of fauna, like insects.”

In his own work as a university researcher, he tries to incentivize the use of biological alternatives to pesticides among his students.

The battle to save the bees

“It feels like we’re alone,” says beekeeper Mora Montero. “The institutions, the farmers … they don’t understand the importance of bees. They say beekeeping is an idle activity.”

In the past six months, she and her husband have sought help to save their bees, but are still waiting for support from the state.

“We have a lawyer who is taking the case through the Agrarian Court in Guápiles, but before we started, we had to explain all about beekeeping,” Mora Montero says. “We know there are risks; the lawyer advised us we could come out of the case worse than before, if we have to give it up or have to pay costs, like paying for a fence to separate us from the cassava crops, for example. I’m tired of all the confrontation; all I want is to make people aware of the importance of bees and for there to be some sort of alliance between beekeepers and farmers.”

Melipona beekeeper Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa checking one of his Mariola beehives. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Acuña Cordero, the biologist, says “there is a lot of economic pressure that prevents public policies that really would regulate the use of agrochemicals. Economic interests are always present when we talk about banana, pineapple, melon and other crops.” She adds, “the diversity of the bees is key to our ecosystems. We need to put aside this anthropocentric vision and consider global health for now and for the future.”

Acuña Cordero is involved in a project organized by the National Chamber for the Promotion of Beekeeping, which is trying to inspire municipalities throughout Costa Rica to declare “bee-friendly neighborhoods.” They’re launching spontaneous initiatives to help look after the bees, including planting bee-friendly flowers and carrying out environmental education. “At the moment, 48 municipalities have signed up. It’s a new initiative that we hope will be one step further toward what we can achieve in the future,” Acuña Cordero says.

Despite these initiatives at the municipal level, the silence from state institutions is a problem that continues to affect the beekeeping couple. Andrea Mora Montero says she’s tired of fighting with her neighbor who sprays his cassava crops with pesticides, while Guillermo Valverde Azofeifa wants to ensure the health of his children, Valeria, 19, and Kevin, 11.

“When they spray the crops with pesticides, you can smell it all the way into our home. My children have asthma. If this continues, I will take it to the Ministry of Health,” he says. “I don’t want my hives to remain only as a memory in photographs. It’s too painful thinking of a future where I go out into my garden and there are no bee houses.”

Banner image: Beekeeper Andrea Mora Montero checks a bee hive for Mariola stingless bees in the garden at her home. The hive was poisoned when the neighbor most recently sprayed his cassava crops with pesticide. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Dec. 10, 2021.

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