Nothing is Sweeter than Honey

I was expecting nothing less from my study abroad experience in Heredia, Costa Rica than for it to be one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. However, I was not anticipating that this program would change my future. As an environmental science and Spanish double major, during my time in one of the most bio diverse countries in the world, I wanted to find an internship opportunity that would satisfy my desire to learn about conservation while practicing my Spanish. With the help of my Resident Director, I was able to secure an internship working with the Center for Tropical Apiculture Studies CINAT at the Universidad Nacional, Campus Benjamín Núñez Center in Heredia, Costa Rica.

Center for Tropical Apiculture Studies CINAT at the Universidad Nacional
Center for Tropical Apiculture Studies CINAT at the Universidad Nacional

Apiculture was something I have never considered pursuing in the United States because what did I know about beekeeping? Coming all the way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the weather is only warm enough for beekeeping between the middle of May and the end of August. Even though I was nervous and intimidated as an undergraduate with little to no experience in this field, I was excited to work with amazing scientists and professors like Rafael Calderón and Fernando Ramírez as well as the graduate level students finishing the masters program. My mentors and fellow students immediately made me feel welcomed and little by little began introducing me to new perspectives of this field.

Working with the team during the internship
Working with the team during the internship

Many students and professors allowed me to assist them with their research. The first time I would be working hands on with Africanized honey bees was in Orotina, Costa Rica. I was nervous at first but after a practice run with a smaller hive, I was ready for the challenge. Africanized honey bees are actually one of the most aggressive bee species in the world, because of this and their tendency to clean themselves, they are less susceptible to a variety of mites and diseases. This time we were not investigating this site for illnesses, we were visiting these hives due to a forest fire than had destroyed twenty-three Africanized hives in a private apiculture center a few days prior.

Visiting Africanized bee hives
Visiting Africanized bee hives

Arriving at the site was devastating. Many of the hives were burnt and destroyed but there were still survivors. I suited up and made sure that the netting around my helmet was secured before approaching the colonies. Within a few yards, the first soldiers started attacking like miniature bullets trying to penetrate through my protective gear. Africanized honey bees keep guards a few yards away from the hives in order to protect their queen. They will sting anything that approaches in a sacrifice to protect their colony. Once these soldiers sting, they release a pheromone that lets the other bees know that danger is approaching.

Selena and a friend working with the bees
Selena and a friend working with the bees

Soon enough I was surrounded. All I could feel was the vibration of the bees as I watched them begin to sworm me, my thoughts overflowed with the sound of buzzing. I managed to think to myself that everything was true about what I have heard about these bees, colloquially known as “killer bees”. But in reality this was not the case. These bees were not actually stinging me they were simply buzzing curiously around my head and wondering what strange creature was approaching them. And I did look strange in my suit, almost like an astronaut if you will.

To calm the bees and to stop them from hurting themselves we use a smoker which does not hurt the bees in any way but makes them very sleepy. This prevents any damage from being done to the colony or from the bees penetrating my suite. Once the bees settle down, we are able to open the hive. Opening up the hive is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Imagine yourself as a giant taking a small chunk out of the Empire State building in New York City. Thousands of people are scrambling around working vigorously, everyone has a job to do, and they are all working together. Organized chaos.

Opening up the beehive
Opening up the beehive

One of the main jobs of the Africanized honey bees is, as one could guess by the name, to produce honey. If you ever have the opportunity to stick your bare hand in a beehive to try the golden sweet sticky liquid that is produced by these hardworking tiny creatures, I highly recommend doing so. Nothing is sweeter than fresh honey. Taking a piece of the waxy rubbery comb and chewing it in your mouth while sucking out every last drop is one of the most wonderfully satisfying and natural things I have ever eaten.

Tasting the fresh honey
Tasting the fresh honey

The honey harvested through CINAT is not only used for consumption. We also create various products using the natural honey, jelly, petroleum, and wax that comes from the hives to create a variety of creams, chapsticks, and perfumes. The honey collected from the hives goes a long way and has many antibacterial and moisturizing benefits. All products are available for purchase at the Benjamín Núñez Center, Universidad Nacional and can also be found throughout local markets surrounding the university in Heredia.

Honey products
Honey products

Having these experiences and opportunities with CINAT has changed my focus as an environmental science student. Prior to my internship, I was unaware just how diverse apiculture truly was. The animal husbandry, economic, chemistry, behavioral, education, and conservation focuses are all perspectives within the field of apiculture that I had the opportunity to learn about first hand. Upon returning back to my host university Washington & Jefferson College, I plan to continue on with this research and new found hobby by starting an apiculture club on campus. After graduation, I would like to return to the Center of Tropical Apiculture Studies in order to complete a masters program here like many of the students that are changing the way people view bees and conservation. Most importantly, this opportunity would not have been possible without my mentors from CINAT and the USAC program in Heredia. Thank you for bee – lieving in me and helping me to understand what my future holds.

Selena Easley is a student at Washington & Jefferson College. She studied abroad in Spring 2019 in Heredia, Costa Rica.