Science, innovation and creativity empower beekeeping to drive local development with benefits for people and nature

A woman entrepreneur from Zhlobin District, Belarus, harnesses apis (beekeeping) innovation to highlight the importance and strengthen visibility of beekeeping for local entrepreneurship and biodiversity.

May 19, 2023

Natalya Vasko, an innovator in sustainable beekeeping inspires and helps people in local community to start and develop beekeeping business.

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

Across the world, the population and diversity of bees continues to decline. The numbers of these small species are falling in the face of habitat loss, intensive monoculture agricultural practices, excessive use of harmful chemicals and climate change. 

Bees and other insect pollinators play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and food security. Thirty-five percent of the global crop production depends on pollinators. The World Bank estimates that a collapse in ecosystem services, including pollination of plants, could result in a decline in global GDP amounting to $2.7 trillion by 2030. 

The preservation of bee populations and their diversity largely depends on the effectiveness of beekeeping practices and the dynamics of beekeeping entrepreneurship in rural communities. 
Natalia Vasko, a women entrepreneur from Zhlobin District, opened a Honey Beekeeping Center featuring an innovative laboratory for reproduction and selection of highly productive bees, an educational center, a “honey” museum, and a carpentry workshop.  

The story of the Center began a couple of years ago, when Natalya purchased the empty premises at an auction. Initially, Natalia was thinking to open a Center for "bee tourism", where tourists and beekeepers from Belarus and beyond could come to taste honey, learn traditions and history of beekeeping craft. Similar "honey tourism" centers can be found across the UK, in Slovenia and Lithuania. 

Bee tourism (also called api-tourism) is a trendy and  new type of ecological and recreational tourism. It combines acquaintance with the culture and traditions of beekeeping with demonstration of environmental, economic and health benefits of this ancient rural craft. 

The participation in the contest of local initiatives organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Economy of Belarus with the financial support of the European Union supported Natalia’s initiative about the Center. 

In the village of Solonoye the Beekeeping Center welcomes visitors with bright black and yellow huts stylized as beehives.

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

The win in the contest helped the bee initiative to move forward faster. Today tourists come to Solonoe to learn more about the rich history and traditions of beekeeping in Belarus, observe the life of bees in a demonstration glass hive, practice honey extraction with a manual honey extractor. In total, the Center offers four types of excursions.

Inspired by the success, Natalia went beyond her initial business plan. In addition to promoting "honey tourism," the woman decided to strengthen the scientific part of her "honey" enterprise. She opened a laboratory for controlled breeding and artificial insemination. In Belarus there are less than a dozen specialists in the field. Three of them, including Natalia, are living in Gomel region.

UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Belarus Armen Martirosyan at the laboratory during the visit to the initiative by the UNDP management in Belarus.

Photo: Siarhiej Leskiec/UNDP in Belarus

"The laboratory equipment - artificial insemination, sterilization and climate equipment, microscopes - are very expensive. That's why their purchasing was postponed till better times," says Natalia.
Bees that were bred in the laboratory are in strong demand because they are not aggressive and have very high honey productivity.

Controlled bees breeding is a labor-intensive process. It requires not only scientific knowledge and laboratory conditions, but also a clear timetable and many bee houses. At the same time the market price of queen bees that were bred in a laboratory is rather high. This makes science-based “honey” business a very profitable endeavor.

UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus Alexandra Solovieva (left) familiarizes herself with a demonstration beehive during a visit to the "bee" initiative.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

In addition to the development of the scientific component, Natalia turned her Center into an educational platform on the basics and specifics of beekeeping. Beginner beekeepers can get basic training here while experienced beekeepers can share knowledge and generate new ideas. 

"Beekeeping can be both the main source of income and a part-time job - depending on which scenario one chooses. Even one person can manage an apiary! Often people don't know where to start from. That's why our training combines theory and practice of beekeeping," said Natalia. 

The demand for the training turned out to be high. Thirty people took the full beekeeping course during the year. Therefore, Natalia increased the quantity of trainings and added new activities. "We tested the format of excursions with honey tasting and a master class on making wax candles and did some good money on this, says Natalia. - We came to the thought about manufacturing souvenirs and creative kits for handmaking wax candles."

A device for pumping honey in the point for collective use of equipment.

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

The opening of a point for collective use of honey making equipment was another motivator for local people to start beekeeping business. There beekeepers can pump honey and melt beeswax. The opportunity to use high-cost equipment for a small rent fee is very important for those who are taking their first steps in this business. About 30 beekeepers use the collective point every month. 

An unfinished api-shed.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

For experienced beekeepers, Natalia offers innovations that can take their business level up. For example, api-wellness treatments in a shed with a daybed above the hives for relaxing to the sound of the bees. A body picks up the vibrations of bees, rests better, gets rid of physical and emotional stress. Such api-sheds can be put in gardens or in ecotourism estates offering visitors recreational service. 

Another innovative idea is the installation of mobile platforms for safe transportation of hives, also on long distances. "Honeybees help increase yields for many garden crops and also improve crop quality! Because of this, farmers and gardeners who are interested in quality pollination of their plants, "invite" bees to their gardens and fields. - tells Natalia. – A mobile platform is used as a "cab" to deliver bees for pollination and honey harvesting." 

Hives for mobile platforms.

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

The Center also produces and sells beekeeping equipment. A carpentry shop there makes hives, mobile platforms, api-sheds, and honey barrels. 

Even though the Center is just one year old, five people who took training there have started their own beekeeping business already. Fifty percent of those who have completed the training consider beekeeping as a viable business opportunity. What is also appealing is that the upfront investment to start a beekeeping business is relatively small and the profitability is about 40 percent.

"I am happy that my business helps improve people's lives. Many are inspired to start their own business, says Natalia. Another important plus of the beekeeping is their vital role in sustaining ecological balance."

Photo: Yana Bondar/UNDP in Belarus

Apart from helping local entrepreneurship to grow, Natalya's business contributes to solving the global challenge of preserving the population of bees. Natalia calls her Center a "bee" business incubator, a place where honey entrepreneurs are educated, guided and supported in doing what they love and earning good money.

Beekeeping is quite a popular type of entrepreneurship in the rural areas of Belarus. This is where local knowledge is accumulated both in the field of rural entrepreneurship and in the preservation of local ecosystems and biodiversity. Natalya's initiative shows how new technologies and innovations in beekeeping not only help improve honey quality and maintain local ecological balance, but also become a center for promoting and developing local entrepreneurial initiatives. 

UNDP’s support to local initiatives like these contributes to implementation of the national programme "Small and Medium Entrepreneurship", "Agrarian Business" for 2021-2025, facilitates achievement of the national priorities set in the Doctrine of National Food Security of the Republic of Belarus until 2030, the National Plan on Preservation and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity for 2021-2025.

The initiative "ApiMir: new opportunities for rural business" is implemented in the framework of the project "Support for local economic development in the Republic of Belarus", implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Belarus with the financial support of the European Union.