UGA Honeybee Lab director helps expand honeybees’ reach.
Honeybees do more than produce honey and pollinate crops — they can help sustain a local community if their power is harnessed correctly.
Jennifer Berry, laboratory and apiary manager of the University of Georgia Honeybee Lab, recently returned to her honeybees after a 16-day journey through Nicaragua. She spent most of her time in Tipitapa, a town just north of the capital city of Managua.
Berry took her apiary and bee colonization expertise south to work with Sweet Progress, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Nicaraguan communities to profit from beekeeping.
Sweet Progress introduced large-scale bee colonization to Tipitapa as part of a multiphase sustainability project. The last phase teaches beekeeping skills to farmers — everything from colonization to disease prevention and honey quality control. That’s where Berry comes in.
Berry is an expert in honeybee queen raising, a vital component to a sustainable colonization that will continue to produce. She worked with about 50 students over the 16 days, half of whom were new to beekeeping.
She introduced them to the beekeeping basics, including hive construction, queen raising and the importance of bee pollination to sustain a small community.
The next phase worked with small groups, mostly comprised of women, to develop co-ops that will run the integrated bee business.
The co-op then works with local carpenters to construct the hive frames and artisans to develop bee byproduct packaging.
Vincent Cosgrove, founder and executive director of Sweet Progress, spends most of his time in Nicaragua fostering education-based leadership within the beekeeping co-ops.
The communities are poverty-stricken and there is little economic infrastructure to bring people out of that poverty, Cosgrove said. So programs like these that teach a sustainable skill are crucial.
Berry’s involvement was part of the pilot education program that Cosgrove hopes is the first of many.
“What really blew me away was how resourceful the Nicaraguan people were.”
— Jennifer Berry
Education initiatives are not new to UGA’s Honey Bee Program housed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ entomology department — and are just as important to Berry as the actual bee raising.
Bees do much more than meets the eye, and it’s part of her job to educate the public on their productive properties, said Berry, who has a master’s degree in entomology from UGA and has been the program manager since 2000.
The Nicaraguan beekeeping veterans and newcomers alike worked with Berry and her team to bolster the town’s bee colonization, and also focused on learning commerce flow that will foster their bee byproduct business.
Sweet Progress teaches basic business skills to residents — how to deal with banks and package their bee-made honey, lotion and hand salve.
Access to marketable packaging is an obstacle in the town, so Berry’s education team helped come up with an alternative.
They decided to use the shells of jícaro fruit, a native Central American bloom, for canisters, and initiated a product marketing class to follow.
“What really blew me away was how resourceful the Nicaraguan people were,” she said.
An important part of Sweet Progress is empowering the residents to create a sustainable community that can get a fair price for their trade, by teaching not only a skill, but related classes as well. The idea is to help bring people out of poverty by expanding their skill set and integrating other community trades.
Berry says bees are a great way to spread that emancipation. And not just any bee — Nicaragua is home to the Africanized honeybee, which is a temperamental breed, she said.
“Beekeeping is 100 times harder there,” she said. “It’s a more aggressive bee, with a lower threshold for human interaction.”
In addition to the country’s harsher environment, the agricultural infrastructure has been devastated due to years of over-farming, she said.
“We go locally, regionally, nationally, internationally — we go all over the world and teach beginning bee schools all the way up to experienced beekeepers to disseminate information from our research.”
— Jennifer Berry
Although Berry’s involvement with Sweet Progress is new, extension and education are common threads in the Honeybee Lab’s work.
Last year, the lab introduced a beekeeping certificate program to Smith State Prison in Glennville, Georgia, and turned 11 inmates into certified Georgia beekeepers who now have a viable skill set when they get out.
“Teaching beekeeping all over the world — from prisons to Nicaragua — we are interested in not only how bees make our food, but how they help [communities] in so many other ways,” Berry said.
As bee populations have been threatened worldwide recently, much research effort has been spent on understanding and reversing that decline. The Honeybee Lab spearheads the field in this area, most recently leading the Managed Pollinator Coordinated Agricultural Project.
They also promote pollinator health education year-round and lead the Young Harris Beekeeping Institute — the 25th annual of which will be held this May. The educational beekeeping event focuses on training and current research, and acknowledges excellence in the field.
“I have the best job in the world, because we really put so much emphasis on education,” Berry said. “We go locally, regionally, nationally, internationally — we go all over the world and teach beginning bee schools all the way up to experienced beekeepers to disseminate information from our research.”
Berry is going back to Tipitapa next year to help residents expand on their skill sets and further their sustainability efforts.
—Erica Hensley, UGA News Service