Bees Rapa Nui

Free of Pathogens, a Source of Life and Love

Bees were introduced to Easter Island by the Catholic missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the decade of the 1860s, and since then have been pollinating guavas, mangoes, bananas and pasture flowers. In the last 50 years, there have been more than a few initiatives to establish proper apiculture on the Island, but none has been able to last. Hives have been destroyed, left without their levels and attacked by ants, all of which have led the colonies to leave where they had been established.

A recent study by the Center for Beekeeping Development at the University Mayor (CeapiMayor) and the Chilean Beekeeping Corporation (Cach), with the support of the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (FIA) discovered that the descendants of these bees are now unique in the world because they are totally free from any pathogens (bacteria, viruses, mites, fungi). This news was an incentive for a group of owners of beehives to form an Agro-apian Cooperative which they call Meri Henua (honey-earth, in the local language). After less than a year of intensive training, it can now be said that Rapa Nui has proper beekeepers. “We are 15. Unfortunately, one member pulled out because he felt that we were holding him back. He already had continental partners in Rancagua where they package and then distribute in Santiago…” comments the president, Diana Edmunds. “Our mission as a co-operative is not as much to sell as to protect our wild bees. Each one of us monitors the bees, teaches the children in the schools and promotes reforestation, both in town and out in the countryside, with nectar producing plants (sweet basil, hibiscus, strawberry, mango, passion fruit, noni, avocado, banana, thyme, clover). In addition, we have a project with CONAF (Chilean National Forestry Service) to work with the Honga’a o te Mana Secondary School. We want to make people aware that the reserve of bees on the Island is part of our heritage, almost like the Moai (statues).”

Throughout the planet there are nearly 20 thousand species of bees and they are our principal pollinators, but their numbers are dropping due to the use of insecticides and diseases. About 75% of the major food crops throughout the world depend on pollination by animals, with bees and bumblebees being the most efficient. There are four major plagues that affect bees: the Varroa destructor mite, the Acarapis woodi parasite, the Paenibacillus larvae and Melissococcus plutón bacteria. Until now, there are only two places in the world which are recognized as being free from the varroa mite: Australia and the South Island of New Zealand. Those bees are considered to be the healthiest on the planet, so their honey and byproducts are in very high demand. Rapa Nui could now be the third on the list, if it passes the exhaustive exams that are being undertaken by the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) of Easter Island. Francisco Vergara, the Provincial Director, informs that the office has been developing a protocol over the last two years with annual sampling for diseases in order to get the legal status needed to protect the area and declare the Island as a disease-free territory. The Island’s sanitary conditions should permit it to become a biological reserve and even export queens and healthy genetic material.
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José Álvarez, the Official Veterinarian in charge of Animal Protection in the office of the SAG, is working on the sampling for this year. In 2016 he inspected 8 beekeepers with a total of 72 hives and the report confirmed the absence of the four plagues mentioned, with the exception of a species of wingless fly called a bee louse (Braula coeca), which can be controlled and eliminated from a hive with simple management. “The important thing is a strict control, specially with the beekeeping materials and supplies which are brought from the continent. The highest risk is with the wax, but, happily, the Cooperative is now producing wax on the Island. The bees of Rapa Nui are not just healthy, but they also can produce much more than any other bee in the country. Since the Island doesn’t have a cold season and plants flower year round, honey is produced throughout the entire year, unlike the Central Zone of continental Chile where it is only between the end of July and the first of April,” adds José Álvarez.
The next step is that the authorities, and the Islanders themselves, control this biological heritage. The entry of other bees, honey and sub-products should be restricted and avoided. “If a local bee alights on honey brought from the continent, or from any other part of the world, it could pick up a pathogen and then transmit it to the rest,” say the experts. The next time you see a bee buzzing around, you should remember that they are a magnificent indicator of the health of the environment, as well as a source of life and love.
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