LAS TUNAS.— Given its healing properties, different uses in food or as a raw material in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, honey is a product in high demand internationally.
Its consolidation as an exportable item has determined increasing efforts in Cuba to improve knowledge and training among beekeepers, in pursuit of more efficient handling of this product. In this sense, the Cuban Apiculture Company has drawn up strategies that are based, above all, on direct contact with producers.
It is under such premises that work is undertaken in the Las Tunas Apiculture Basic Enterprise Unit (UEB). The distribution of manuals of good practice for individual and collective training and manufacturing, as well as “honey plenaries,” are among the tools available to beekeepers to ensure three essential elements: productivity, quality, and safety.
The Las Tunas UEB today has 328 productive apiaries (each with X number of hives), belonging to 127 producers, associated with 36 credit and services cooperatives, through which the honey is marketed.
Like other products, honey is classified according to established quality parameters. This also influences the payment received by beekeepers.
Isabel Yanet Carbonell Jorge, quality management specialist at the Las Tunas UEB, offered details: “We have an integrated quality management system that constantly assesses the aspects that may affect this indicator. In the laboratory we have here, we conduct moisture content and color tests (which depend on the flowers visited by the honey bees). An organoleptic test is also undertaken: smell, taste and appearance of the honey; and we also determine if it has any HMF percent (Hydroxymethylfurfural: considered an indicator of loss of honey quality due to aging and poor storage or inadequate handling), and all this is taken into account when determining the quality.
“There is also a rigorous documentation process to determine the amount of honey, drums and what apiaries it has come from. This allows for product traceability, in such a way that if there is a problem with a particular batch after export, it is possible to know which producers contributed to it.
“These aspects are taken into consideration when making payments, in line with international market prices. For example, in the month of February, we paid 17,900 pesos per ton. A ton of premium honey on the international market costs around 3,000 to 3,200 euros. Of course, these are the highest prices listed at this time, but honey also fluctuates and at certain times prices are mid-range or low,” Carbonell explained.
In addition, specific characterizes in each territory require strict monitoring, as neglecting them can impact essential honey quality parameters.
HIVES “AT THE READY”
Romerillo (Bidens pilosa) is one of the most widespread melliferous flowers in Las Tunas. However, once the optimum flowering period of this plant has concluded, the dispersion of other blooms forces producers to carry out what is known in beekeeping terms as transhumance, that is, moving hives from one area to another to take advantage of a flowering period.
This implies great benefits mainly in terms of productivity, but can also entails difficulties if apiaries are not handled correctly.
Coastal areas of the country are flower-rich, as such transhumant honey producers bring their hives to these zones. However, the honey derived from these plants usually has a high moisture content, which can exceed 20%, thus failing to reach the maximum quality indicator of below 19.6% water content. Experienced producers like Carlos Duarte know very well what to do to counter this problem.
”Generally, the honey with the highest moisture levels is that from the coast, and that derived from whiteroot (Gouania lupuloides). In these cases, the producer must try to make these honeys ripen as much as possible. With other blooms honeycombs can be extracted once 70% or more capped, but with these flowers, you have to try to ensure they are 100% capped.”
As honey is an innocuous product, there are other aspects that beekeepers take into account for the location of hives. For example, in areas of intensive agriculture, there is high probability of contamination, given the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and other chemicals. The hygiene of areas where apiaries are located is also vital, to prevent predators or rodents.
In addition, hive elements must be regularly disinfected and replaced. The cleaning of all equipment and utensils that come into contact with honey is another essential, as Majibacoa-based producer Isidro Silva explained.
“We must be very careful with all the implements we use because we run the risk of contaminating the honey. This is why the enterprise has sold us an extraction module in which all the components are made of stainless steel, which makes sterilization processes much easier. On the other hand, the drums in which we store the honey are reused, so we must wash them well, only with water and let them dry completely before refilling them.”
Although it seems an extreme measure, ensuring that the honey is innocuous also requires constant checks on beekeepers’ health, to prevent any foodborne infections that they may be suffering from contaminating the final product.
In this territory there is no processing plant, so the honey collected in Las Tunas is transferred to Contramaestre in Santiago de Cuba. It is worth noting that although the Las Tunas UEB laboratory can not perform all the necessary quality tests, its results have been largely in line with those of the processing plant.
VISION OF THE FUTURE
There is currently increasing demand on the international market for organic and single flower honeys. Although, for the moment, producing these types of honey is not possible in Las Tunas province, studies are being carried out to move toward these.
In the meantime, constant training for beekeepers is the most important guarantee of quality. Beekeeping is a very complex form of farming, which requires complete control over the handling and processing of honey, an increasingly important product for the country.