Beekeeping in Trinidad and Tobago arranged by Bees for Development proved to be the most exciting and original holiday I could have wished for.
Lush tropical rainforests, fabulous beaches, steel bands, rum drinks, amazing food, fruit I had never even heard of much less seen, mot-mot birds, banana quets, cookery lessons (making roti), snorkelling on the Buccoo reef - oh, and I nearly forgot, of course, the bees!
There were five intrepid beekeepers from various parts of the UK and our host for the entire time was the unfailingly charming, courteous and helpful Gladstone Solomon, President of the Tobago Apicultural Society. He had arranged all the visits to the various apiaries and the sightseeing in between. Nothing was too much trouble for Gladstone who was a fount of knowledge on both beekeeping and on the history of the islands. We started in Tobago, the smaller of the islands where the bees are still the native bee and moved on to Trinidad later, where the native bees have gradually been replaced by Africanised bees that have crossed the narrow straight of water between the island and Venezuela. Langstroth hives were used in both islands and in Trinidad we also saw some modified Dadant hives.
In Tobago Gladstone was trying top-bar hives; these formed part of a joint research project by the Tobago Apicultural Society and Bees for Development. These hives are similar to the top‑bar hives used in parts of Africa and are horizontal rather than vertical. They are composed of a single long box with sloping sides and no fixed frames but just a bar with a small piece of wax fixed along the top to encourage the bees to start building comb. As the brood nest expands, new bars are added at the back. In the tropics, there are no worries about keeping the brood nest warm as we have in the UK, so the extra space available early on is not a problem. A very active queen can easily be given plenty of space and continue to lay. Such a simple design has obvious cost advantages in the reduction of equipment required.
The amount of honey produced was excellent but a disadvantage is that, as in framed brood combs, the honey tended to be stored above and around the brood. The queen continues to lay below as the bees extend the comb downwards. Thus to remove the honey one has to destroy a certain amount of brood. The hives varied, with some colonies building in a very organised way and producing comb as regular as if it was in a frame. There was some attachment to the walls of the hives and care had to be taken when inspecting to remove this. Interestingly this was more of a problem in the fresh drawn comb, but was rarely seen when the frames were of drawn comb. Gladstone had two different sizes of hives he was trying, one with 28 frames in a box 9 inches deep and the other with 24 frames in a box 10.5 inches deep. The spacing was the same as in a Langstroth (1⅜") . These are calculated to give the same overall capacity as in a Langstroth. The slope of the sides was 10 degrees (as is being used in Tanzania).
We visited both of Gladstone's apiaries and saw how he had to protect the hives from ants and termites by standing the legs in huge cans of engine oil. Smoker fuel was coconut husk or banana leaves, both of which were conveniently lying around the forest floor. The hives were all placed in the shadiest parts where they were protected from the fiercest heat. After this we went to a delightful restaurant for lunch - this became a highlight of the trip, as Gladstone seemed to find a never-ending supply of marvellous places to eat. This one was high up and looked out over the sea to Trinidad and had bird feeders contained sugar syrup suspended out over the ocean to attract the banana quets.
Stingless Bees in Tobago Studies on the stingless bees are jointly funded by Utrecht University and the Tobago Apicultural Society. These intriguing little insects are but one species of many stingless types and the species native to this part of the tropics is Melipona favosa. We saw our first colonies of stingless bees in the apiary of Edson George, a fulltime beekeeper. Edson had a motley selection of dogs, cats, goats, geese and chicken in addition to his bees. The stingless bees were housed in small boxes about the size of nucs. Some were suspended from tree branches and let down on wires for inspection. These bees are indigenous to the area and the project is designed to improve the honey yielding capacity of the colonies. The hives consist of a small, deep brood chamber at one end connected via a small opening to a longer, shallow honey chamber. Both boxes sit on a bottom tray and each has a lid or roof covering them. The brood differs from that of honeybees and bumble bees in that the eggs are provisioned completely and sealed early on, with no additional feeding taking place. The brood looks quite similar to honeybee sealed brood, but the honey stores look very different. The bees construct pots with a small opening at the top; these are far darker than the brood and much larger. Just like honey bees, the stingless bees did not always obey the rules and do what was expected of them! Some colonies put their honey pots in with the brood rather than using the honey chamber provided.
It was a very hot and humid day on our visit to this apiary and after looking at honey bee colonies wearing a beesuit and rubber gloves we all retreated to the shade. It had become evident, rather to our mystification that an essential beekeeping tool in the Caribbean seemed to be an evil looking machete. But Edson then demonstrated one of its many uses with great skill by slicing off the ends of young coconuts to provide the most refreshing and wonderful drink, quite unlike any coconut juice I have tasted at home. We then retired to yet another great place to eat which had a sliding roof as it was originally a cocoa drying shed. From here we went to see a magnificent waterfall and cooled off in the river.
It has to be admitted that the reputation of the Africanised bees does not fill one with courage, especially since some of the group were regaled with another horror story by the customs man when entering the country - 'My neighbour got attacked by a swarm when he was strimming the grass. He was taken to hospital with hundreds of stings - he survived but his dog died'! Still, I told myself, visiting beekeepers have been here before and Gladstone wouldn't bring us here if they were that dangerous, so we shouldn't worry too much. I had done my homework and discovered that Africanised bees do not produce more venom and their venom is not more venomous than our bees. The problem is that they react far more rapidly to being disturbed and to the pheromones released if a bee is killed, with great numbers of bees coming out ready to attack.
It was interesting to see how the various beekeepers in Trinidad approached handling these bees. Apparently the colour black is anathema to them and we were told to put away our cameras as the black casing would attract them and could antagonise them. Needless to say we didn't, thinking that silver would be OK, but the bees saw the black back of the cameras and immediately clustered around it! The trick seemed to be to use massive amounts of smoke, far more than we do, presumably to mask any release of pheromones. The beekeepers all had huge smokers, sometimes standing them on the ground and working them with their knees. The colonies we saw were fairly lively, but not aggressive - I have certainly seen far worse here, although thankfully rarely! The beekeepers, however, handled the colonies carefully and as soon as bees started to cluster around anyone, they smoked them heavily.
Although the colonies were not difficult to handle under normal circumstances, they do react very badly to the use of mowers, strimmers or cutters nearby and at one apiary, the beekeeper was reluctant to open his hives as someone had cut the grass close to the hives just before we arrived. We asked how they managed to keep the vegetation down near the hives and were told that you go out late, wearing dark overalls so they can't see you, cut or mow very quickly and run! This apiary was on the most beautiful estate and we were given a tour to see plantations of avocado, mahogany, acacia and cocoa as well a range of tropical fruits before being served long glasses of delicious fruit juices.
In one apiary on Trinidad the owner Bede Rajahram had 32 colonies stolen a few years ago - the mind boggles at the thought of stealing Africanised bees, although we were told that some farmers use them as a deterrent to unwanted visitors! Bede's current colonies were situated in the forest up a very steep slope - we had to scramble using handholds to get up what passed for a path. I asked him how he got the honey supers down, presuming there would be an alternative, gentler track, but he said no, that was the only track, he just carried them down a couple at a time balanced on his head!
This was another place where we were treated with such amazing hospitality. We had been intrigued by one of the local dishes, roti, a cross between a pancake and a chapatti. There were roti restaurants and Gladstone had taken us to one and showed us the different types. Bede's wife, Depa, having been told this, gave us a cookery lesson and showed us how to make two different types of roti. She also cooked dahl and pak choi with pepper, onion and garlic, and we then sat and had a marvellous lunch, all washed down with home made pineapple juice. These beekeeping holidays can be such hard work!
Varroa arrived in the islands very recently so they do not yet have much experience with this pest. Views of its management were surprisingly varied, some using oils (unspecified) in syrups, some using rotations of Apistan or Bayvarol, coumophos and Apiguard. Bede Rajahram managed his land and bees organically and does not use any chemical treatment. He claimed to have colonies with very low levels of Varroa. The Africanised bee is smaller than the European bees and completes its cycle sooner (about two days less). It is possible that this slight difference in cycle may reduce the numbers of Varroa and thus reduce the impact the parasite has on the colony.
In spite of having looked at an atlas and seen that Trinidad and Tobago were the southernmost part of the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela and thus very close to the Equator, it still came as something of a surprise to me, never having been to the real tropics before, to realise that a) the temperature stayed the same all year round and b) the days were only about 12 hours long. The day-length has quite an impact on the yields of honey, since I tended to think that with this amazing amount of lush growth of flowering trees and shrubs, they would get huge yields of honey. The bulk of the flow was from Mid-January (the start of the dry season) through to June (the start of the wet season). During the wet season, there are still very good sources of nectar but the bees are frequently unable to fly because of the heavy rain.
Initially I was surprised to hear that the average yield of the Langstroth hives was only 35 kg per year. Having thought about it though, the bees are restricted in their nectar gathering by the short days, in comparison with more temperate countries. In the UK, on a warm day in mid-summer, our bees have many more hours in which to forage. They do have far more predictable weather in the Caribbean, so to know that you will regularly get 35 kg per hive is probably better than our erratic yields. Their honey does not set and most seemed to be a rich colour.
A major nectar source on both islands is a beautiful tree called locally the Immortelle (Erythrina poeppigiana, a member of the Leguminosae). This is large deciduous forest tree with glorious orange flowers, the petals carpeting the ground in some places. This tree was out when we were there in March. Other good nectar sources were the avocado and a tree called a Cyp; this is Cordia alliodora, a member of the Boraginaceae which has large clusters of tiny white scented flowers. Another unusual tree was the Naked Indian (Bursera simaruba) also flowering in the dry season. The beautiful and aptly named Powder Puff tree (Calliandra inaequilatera) was covered in large pink flowers; this is in the mimosa family but does not have sensitive leaves. The sandbox tree (Hura crepitans), a relative of the poinsettia, flowers in the wet season as does the fiddlewood tree.
This holiday was outstanding in so many aspects. As noted, we sampled a huge variety of eating places, all so good and so different that it is difficult to pick out one over the others. The kindness showed to us by the various beekeepers and their families was touching. Gladstone was a master at arranging impromptu events such as the visit to a steel band in Trinidad on our last evening. The band were rehearsing for a major competition in, of all places, London (UK)! My only complaint was that the timing was just wrong as we left Trinidad the day before the second test match started! Still, Gladstone worked his magic and got us into the ground so we could see where it would all happen before we left. All in all, a brilliant holiday and I can't wait to go back.