SPAIN. Sosas de Laciana. Nila and Ramiro started an organic honey business in the middle of the Cantabric Mountains in northern Spain in 2015. De Osos y Colmenas (of Bears and Beehives) is based on an environmentally respectful business model to promote sustainability. They followed an apiculture formation run by a local honey consultancy. They wanted to show that entrepreneurship is viable even in isolated areas of the country. They obtained a regional honey award for the best organic dark honey their first productive year. Subsequently, they’ve been collecting recognition, awards, and respect from locals and nationals. The Transcontinental Times team interviewed Nila. She reveals the surprising context and impact of their project.
Coal mining took his final breath. “According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), we reached the milestone in 2007-08.” Over 55% of the global population resides in cities, and the numbers have kept increasing. This global migratory trend happens in the Laciana Valley also, “the great forgotten” in Nila’s words. Biosphere reserve, with deep valleys corsetted in imposing mountains, the area is known as one of the Spanish mining basins. The region was dependent on coal for decades.
In the 1990s, the energy required for extraction surpassed coal’s financial return. So mining started fading. Locals found themselves with no economically viable alternative. When the last mining extraction operation in the area closed in December 2018, it left hundreds unemployed. Laciana Valley fell behind business changes, surpassed by neighboring provinces. Youth began migrating to the cities. Only a few surprised tourists enjoy the nostalgia of this once-thriving community.
León’s Province has frantic bee activity. De Osos y Colmenas is the first certified organic honey producer in the country. They count on the natural mountainous isolation of the area left behind after the closing of the mines. Traditional farming and grazing have almost disappeared, so bees can feed without encountering pesticides. Nila’s hives are at 1400 meters altitude. They are in La Braña (the mountains in the local language) that shadow a village of less than 200, Sosas de Laciana. The bees can feed on a 3 km radius free of sulfates.
Even given the favorable conditions, Nila and Ramiro knew they were going to face limitations. Namely, climate change: “It kills bees’ wild swarms and develops new pandemics,” Nila explains. But also the local’s rejection of anything new and different and a lack of entrepreneurship support. Also, the Brown Bear species is back in the area that depend on honey.
Nila and Ramiro started with 200 hives but decided to downscale. “We wanted to dedicate more time to every hive. We chose not to follow a bulk honey production [model] and instead invested in high quality. There is also a clear demand for certified organic products in the market.” So they produce organic honey, propolis, and wax. They also teach about beehives in local schools and run a hive sponsor program. “Anyone can sponsor a hive in spring. By October, the money they’ve invested comes back to them in honey and related products.” Theirs is a thriving business. “We want more people producing organic honey in the area; there is plenty of room!” Nila adds.
Bee seeks human partner. Their motivation for wishing more people would join them in the mountains is generously selfish. According to a Fundación Banco Santander’s 2013 project, bees help recover mountain ecosystems. Their study reached this conclusion by placing mobile beehives around the Liébana area (Cantabria province, northern Spain). Wild swarms keep dying due to climate change. It is the apiculture’s responsibility to pollinate. Therefore, we require more apiculture.
Nila and Ramiro also believe that high-quality organic honey can bring a lasting social impact in the area. “Locals have supported our project from the beginning, much to our surprise. Although we sell our honey at twice the local price, they started buying it immediately. Also, more and more young people are looking to join similar projects in the area.” Nila also sees how honey can help develop tourist possibilities of the Laciana Valley. Some tourists already reach these mountains looking for the Brown Bear, still threatened by extinction.
Striking a deal with bears. Nila and Ramiro have reached an agreement with the Black Bear, whom they consider a natural ally, not an enemy. They prevent bears from eating their hive’s production by locating a double set of electrified fences around them. In exchange, the bees increase pollination. In turn, it gives the bears bigger and more abundant fruits upon which to feed. Also, floral biodiversity is essential for maintaining their ecosystem. Hence they generate a win-win relationship, preventing extinction of the threatened bear.
Nila’s and Ramiro’s project is creating job opportunities in an abandoned rural area. In addition to doing so, they are helping to restore the natural environment. More tourists help locals diversify economically. And the bears, which have sensibly kept to themselves can roam the lavish mountains again.