Long before the embargo and before the Castro brothers, Cuba was a beekeeper’s paradise North American gringos operating Cuban honey farms. Spain ruled Cuba for almost 400 years, but the United States took it as a trophy after the Spanish-American War (1898). The USA quickly granted Cuba independence (1902), but claimed the right to control Cuba’s foreign affairs and its finances. For the next 50 years, Americans built businesses on the island. The biggest money makers were rum, casinos, and resorts, but beekeepers also set up shop. Cuban honey farms owned by beekeepers in New York and the US midwest were once a big thing.
Well, it may happen again. Not that Cuba’s beekeepers are suffering. Last year, they produced 15 million pounds of honey. Not only that, but at $23 million, honey was Cuba’s 4th most valuable export crops in 2015, passing both sugar cane and coffee!
Cuba may have a special edge in honey markets. According to an article in The Guardian, Cuba is the world leader in organic honey production. As the newspaper sees it, the absence of pesticide makers (such as Bayer and Monsanto) has left Cuban farmers without poisons and GMOs, resulting in pristine pastures for honey bees. I’m not so sure.
Perhaps there are some isolated areas in Cuba which don’t receive pesticides, herbicides, or other farm chemicals. But it’s likely Cuban farmers use locally produced and sometimes harsher chemicals from the old DDT days – things like arsenic, cyanide, and the ‘thion series. According to International Bee Research science director Norman Carreck, in Cuba “the overall use of pesticides has been fairly controlled,” putting a damper on The Guardian’s implication that Cuba is entirely pesticide-free. It is not. The Guardian also suggests that Cuba, as a home to organic foods, has healthier bees. Perhaps, but it’s also possible that the embargo has stopped bee imports and their attached varroa partners. Being economically isolated can have ecological advantages.
What will happen when Cuba can finally import stuff from the USA again and beekeepers build new honey empires on the island? With the Pope and perhaps the president visiting, American beekeepers are sure to follow. Undoubtedly, Cubans will replace donkey carts with pickup trucks and they’ll have finer toys and stuff. Life, I hope, will improve for ordinary folks. People will be free to criticize their government and subscribe to the Guardian and New Yorker, and freely post their opines to the web. But with open borders, things like pests, modern pesticides, and increased bee mortality may also arrive. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.