The Bee Doctor

This article was first published by Southern Cross University on 10 February 2021 and is reproduced here with their kind permission. The original article can be viewed here. The PARDI2 team are delighted to have been collaborating with Dr Schouten in support of beekeepers in Fiji.

Dr Cooper Schouten has been fascinated by bees ever since he was a child, convinced he could talk to his tiny insect friends. Fast-forward a couple of decades and that childhood fascination has become a career.

In 2014, during his undergraduate Environmental Science studies, Cooper received a New Colombo Plan scholarship funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to work in rural Timor-Leste. It was during this time he realised that the state of the environment was inherently linked to community welfare and that his love of bees could be used to help both.

Acutely aware that many people in the world don’t have access to choice and that waking up with access to clean water and an education is a privilege not the norm, Cooper set out to work with these communities. He worked closely with social geographer and researcher Associate Professor David Lloyd, and the two have since gone on to work on beekeeping research and development programs throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

While in the rural village of Gleno, Cooper spoke with local honey hunters who described the process of harvesting honey from the tops of giant shade trees, using a burning branch at night.

“These coffee shade trees are over 50 metres tall and it was a bit of a taboo to discuss this because people often fall to their deaths honey hunting, it’s very dangerous,” said Dr Schouten.

“I thought to myself, there has to be a better way of doing this, and ever since I’ve devoted every day to learning about international agricultural development processes and all things bees.”

Cooper came to the conclusion that the best way to get people out of poverty was through agriculture, as the majority of the world’s poor population live in rural areas where they’re heavily dependent on the agricultural sector to service subsistence and export economies.

“Beekeeping is something smallholder famers can do without owning a lot of land. It doesn’t take a lot of time, bees can significantly increase crop yields, and can be a lot of fun. There are numerous value-added products that can be made from beeswax and the development of the honey bee industry can enhance opportunities for income diversification and employment in producing beekeeping inputs such as bee boxes, gloves, veils and queen bees. You can also produce candles, surf wax and zinc, lip balm and soaps from beeswax. Bees don’t negatively impact on the environment like many other forms of agriculture and there really is a lot more to beekeeping than just honey.”

After completing his Bachelor of Science with first class honours at Southern Cross, Cooper went on to do a PhD looking at the reasons why international aid and agricultural interventions work, and also why they don’t.

“A lot of the time organisations seeking to help poor people can have a lot of good technical information and the best intensions, but the resources, skills and mechanisms that enable extension services to be accountable and effective for rural farmers aren’t always successful,” he said.

Cooper is now the project manager for the University’s Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group. He works closely with Australia’s leading international agricultural research organisation the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research to improve the productivity, resilience and profitability for smallholder beekeeping enterprises in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

“We’re working with local partners on a number of different activities spanning honey bee nutrition and the development of floral calendars, pest and disease management and improving honey bee biosecurity in the pacific, bee breeding and genetics and improving inclusion and gender equity within the honey bee industries,” he said.

“We have strong working relationships with our fellow beekeepers in PNG and Fiji, and more broadly throughout the Pacific region. These partnerships enable us to develop impactful programs that focus on capacity building and identifying solutions to problems that matter to local people.”

Cooper and the Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods group are also working on strengthening honey bee industry value chains, enhancing the effectiveness of beekeeping education and training services, improving beekeeping business approaches and post-harvest handing, quality assurance and marketing.

“The research we do has practical outcomes for rural farmers, so they can make informed decisions about their management practices. These projects also provide amazing opportunities for skills development in beekeeping research and extension while providing information for guiding honey bee biosecurity here in Australia” he said.  

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from bees that we can take into our personal lives in regard to partnership, participation and equality in effective decision making, according to Cooper.

“Contrary to what most people assume, the bee colony isn’t a monarchy ruled by a single queen bee who makes all the decisions. The worker bees actually make the shots through democratic voting and consensus building, and they have lots of different mechanisms of communicating through sounds, vibrations, pheromones and dance. They work together as a team, without a domineering leader, to uncover a diverse set of possible solutions to a problem, they critically appraise these possibilities, and then winnow out all but the best one.”

“I feel so fortunate to be able to put the skills I learnt at Southern Cross to use in a practical way that can be of value to people who are in need. These beekeepers who live in remote and wild places that I work with are some of my best friends, and they have it tough. There are some exciting opportunities in the nexus of international agricultural research to solve problems with local people and I look forward to all the great friendships and adventures to come.” 

Cooper is teaching Introduction to Regenerative Agriculture in 2021 as part of the University’s Regenerative Agriculture courses.

Follow Cooper on Twitter

Learn more about research into beekeeping for sustainable livelihoods in the indo-pacific.

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