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Beekeeping Diplomacy

03/20/08 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares is a writer, former teacher and legislator. He's also a beekeeper, and lately he's been practicing what you might call "Beekeeping Diplomacy."

(MARES) Since 2005, I've gone to Central America at least once a year to study Spanish, be a casual tourist, and do some volunteer work with beekeepers. Each year I see new places, and my linguistic comfort zone extends farther from the classroom and restaurant to the store, the street and the bus. Most importantly, it now extends into the countryside, where the bees are located.  

I've worked hard to gain fluency in the specialized vocabulary of beekeeping, so that while I can't talk much politics with campesinos I can sure talk beekeeping. Our discussions are mainly about organizational structure, techniques and marketing.  My guiding principle has been to ask lot of questions and volunteer an opinion only when asked.  I'm on familiar ground in discussing diseases, bee temperament, and how to sell honey locally.   

The clearest difference lies in business organization. Most of these guys (and almost all are men) belong to democratically-run cooperatives often involving hundreds of members, with a tradition going back to pre-Columbian times. The United States has only one honey cooperative, the Sioux Bee Association, which produces about 20% of all American commercial honey. All the rest of our honey comes from individual beekeepers.   
It is both surprising and satisfying to compare practices from region to region. I've visited seven different beekeeping operations in four countries, and I've become a sort of human Google, passing on ideas about U.S. practices, of course, but also sharing experiences between beekeepers in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua.

I can't help the individual beekeeper calculate the best use of his time between honey and coffee production and his own subsistence plot of corn and beans.  But I can assist the cooperatives to think through their local, regional and international marketing plans.  My biggest satisfaction has been hatching a project to bring Mexican master beekeepers to Nicaragua to launch a beekeeping training program.   
Much as I enjoy the work, there's another reason I make these trips. I feel guilty about U.S. policies concerning this region over the last 150 years.  From gunboat diplomacy and taking the Panama Canal to destabilizing governments in Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua - all in the name of free trade, the Monroe Doctrine and anti-Communism - the U.S. has a lot to answer for.  What did Porforio Diaz, the Mexican leader, say: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so near to the United States."  
I think it's particularly ironic that if we hadn't taken New Mexico, Arizona, much of Colorado, Utah and California from Mexico in 1848, Mexico would be a much richer country, and far fewer of its people would need to emigrate - illegally or otherwise.
So now I do what I can to make amends: one man, one conversation, one bee hive at a time.
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