Today (Wednesday, March 8) is International Women’s Day. Women have always played an important role in beekeeping. In developing parts of the world, it is usually women who tend hives and produce honey for their families’ food and cash. In some cases, honey money is a major part of a struggling family’s existence.
Here is part of a report about Uganda from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization:
Typically, a trained project officer from the NGO Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) provides training, advice and starter equipment to families supporting orphans and chosen by the local UWESO branch. The beekeepers develop the hives and gradually increase the number, so that after two or three years a family may be operating about 30 hives. Each hive should produce two crops of honey and wax each year, which can be taken to the UWESO collecting centre and sold to local companies for local and export markets. This can provide a return of perhaps US$1400 in a year – well above the average family income level in rural areas.
The cost of such a project to the Trust is about US$140000 including the costs of the project officer, equipment and a collecting and processing centre. If 150 families can each increase their annual earnings by US$1 400 – the return on the single investment of US$140 000 is, amazingly, about US$210 000 each year! Even if some families underperform, the financial returns amply justify the investment.
From the same source, reporting on Afghanistan:
FAO provided training for women and men beekeepers. Since beekeeping can be practised in a home compound, beekeeping was regarded by the Taliban regime as an acceptable activity for women in Afghanistan. In addition to harvesting honey, a highly valued food under current circumstances, the women learned to make skin ointments and other secondary products useful for people living in harsh and isolated conditions. Men and women have been given training in making all the equipment needed for frame-hive beekeeping, so that they can continue without need for external inputs.
Here in Calgary, it’s easy to see the influence of women on the progress of responsible beekeeping. This weekend, I participated in the Calgary bee club’s beginning beekeeping course. Two of my co-presenters were experienced female beekeepers while over half of the 60 students in our class were women.
One of our city’s other bee organizations – Apiaries and Bees for Communities – was developed by Eliese Watson, a passionate beekeeper who started ABC Bees in 2010. Eliese describes her organization, “We work with beekeepers, honey bees, native bees, and ecosystem development to ensure that the skin of our cities supports ecological diversity and protects all of us. We aim to conserve and protect bees and the communities that rely on them.”
The leading roles of women in beekeeping should not be news nor very interesting. But 25 years ago, our club was 90% grumpy old men. Some of those grumpy old men have had a hard time acknowledging that our female beekeepers are usually smarter and more committed than the oldtimers. That may be because the ladies are younger and more enthusiastic than the older gentlemen, but it remains a fact. Hopefully, we are getting past the days when women were expected to bring the coleslaw and participate in Honey Queen pageants and do little else. (Not to disparage the hard work and promotion these women have done (!) – but men often forget that much more has been contributed.)
Women beekeepers are not a new phenomenon. Great beekeepers of the past include Lady Agnes Baden-Powell, founder of the Girl Guides. In the 19th and early 20th century, she encouraged thousands of young ladies to pick up a hive tool. In the USA, Anna Botsford Comstock (How to Keep Bees: A Handbook for the Use of Beginners, 1905) was a pioneer at educating modern North American beekeepers. More recently, nuclear-physicist-turned-beekeeper Eva Crane made huge contributions through her books and organization work at the International Bee Research Association. Famous people who were also beekeepers include Maria von Trapp, Sylvia Plath, Scarlett Johansson, and Martha Stewart. And we have all known women who ran bee businesses – sometimes pretending that it was their lazy or inept husbands who were in charge.
Today, there is increasing awareness of the role women play in beekeeping. Ontario Bee Journal had a great article last year with the witty title The Beeyard Ain’t No Place for a Woman. You’ll enjoy reading it. Some of the best websites (Women in Beekeeping, Emily Scott’s Adventures in Beeland, Emma Maund’s Mrs Apis Mellifera, Girl Meets Bee, and Beekeeping Like A Girl) are produced by great beekeepers. These days, many – perhaps a majority – of bee scientists are female. Around the world, they are producing ground-breaking studies in genetics, environment, and disease/pest control related to honey bees: International (Bee-)Women’s Day is a day worth celebrating!