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Local bee species could boost agriculture, food security for Puerto Rico and the world

The annual celebration of World Bee Day on May 20th, as recognized by the United Nations, is setting the stage for the emergence of the “Puerto Rican Bee,” scientifically known as gAHB, or Africanized gentle honeybee.

This species of bee exclusive to Puerto Rico is hybrid, has unique genetics and has proliferated locally thanks to the commitment and support of scientists, as well as an initiative supported by the Karma Honey Project (KHP), one of several organizations that have been carrying out conservation programs for bees since the 2017, experts said.

Its mission “Save a Bee, Save the World” focuses on educational efforts, environmental awareness and philanthropic initiatives to expand bee populations in Puerto Rico.

Bert Rivera-Marchand, a biologist specializing in molecular ecology and an expert in the study of these animals for more than 15 years, the genetic evolution of the “Boricua” bee could be the solution to reverse the depletion and loss of bees on the planet, helping to create and strengthening populations of this industrious and meek species that pollinates two out of three foods and is critical to the agricultural sector, as well as to the world’s food security.

“Most of the planet’s honeybees are dying from diseases to which Puerto Rican bees are resistant. Our bees could contribute to solving this world crisis,” Rivera-Marchand said.

The expert has worked in coordination with other scientists studying bees, including Tugrul Giray. It is estimated that 80% of all crops depend on the pollination of bees and there is currently a severe crisis in agriculture due to the drastic reduction in bee populations worldwide.

Recently, scientists have confirmed that this bee, unique to Puerto Rico, has a combination of favorable characteristics and traits assimilated from European bees as well as from Africa.

The Puerto Rican bee is relatively gentle, producing and storing a large quantity of honey in a similar fashion to that of European bees (Apis mellifera), while being highly resistant to parasites hot climate diseases that are destroying thousands of bees annually.

Worldwide, this resilience and strength against debilitating and deadly factors were acquired from the African species (Apis mellifera scutellata). The result of this genetic fusion is a docile and productive bee species with greater resilience to climatic challenges and pests, the experts noted.

The KHP, founded in 2018 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational initiative, currently has 325 beehives installed in Río Grande, Dorado, El Yunque, Cataño, Fajardo and Cubuy.

Hives have been established at hotel roofs, schools, farms, as well as in residential homes. Some of the companies and projects that are currently part of this effort include: The Fairmont Hotel San Juan in Isla Verde; the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Río Grande; La Factoría; Chocobar Cortés; Marmalade in Old San Juan; “Culinary U;” and Fusion Farms, an aquaponic farm in Mayagüez.

KHP relies on more than 235 volunteers and six employees to carry out the work of collecting honey, installing and managing hives, among other tasks.

“At Karma Honey Project we want to contribute and educate in the conservation of bees, agriculture and food security on the Island. Without bees, there is no future because without natural pollination, there would be no food,” said Candice Galek, founder by KHP.

The raw honey that the company produced is distributed and sold locally. Each hive produces between 50 to 150 pounds of raw honey per year, depending on the location of the hives, as well as the flora and fauna of the region.

According to Galek, 100% of the money from sales is reinvested in the production and installation of more hives throughout Puerto Rico, helping farmers to pollinate their traditional and urban agricultural crops, support research studies on these species, educate children and adults in general about the importance of bees and plant sunflowers and wildflowers that help nurture bees throughout Puerto Rico.

Positive multiplier effect
KHP data shows that bees increase the production of fruits, vegetables, legumes and vegetables up to 60%, due to the pollination process, a vital factor for agriculture and food security.

According to statistics from the food industry in Puerto Rico, the island imports more than 80% of the food it consumes and has an average food security of 21 days if the arrival of maritime and/or air cargo that transports food to Puerto Rico.

With the devastating passage of Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, the population of bees in Puerto Rico was adversely affected and its population was reduced by approximately 80% according to reports from the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, published in the media.  With the help of several organizations, bees began to proliferate once again and their growth has since been sustained.

The Puerto Rican bee has been studied extensively since 2001 to deepen the knowledge of this species, which was crossed with other types of bees and has been genetically transformed after the arrival of Africanized bees that were displacing European bees near 1994.

Its docility, production capacity, genetic strength and resilience could even allow this species to be exported to the United States and other jurisdictions to begin creating populations of Boricua bees in the diaspora that help the agricultural and agribusiness sector in the near future.

To this end, Rivera-Marchand and other specialists work with federal and state authorities that have shown interest in carrying out these initiatives.

“Puerto Rican bees are an example of resilience, passion, a gentle character and the ability to work together. These are also common traits shared with the people of Puerto Rico who have demonstrated an ability to emerge stronger from each crisis and challenge faced,” Rivera-Marchand said.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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