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ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
They call him the honeyman
Dropping lightly from the battered, black pickup truck, piled high with hive boxes and trailing an airborne chorus of bees, he walks into the school yard. It does not take long for a train of children to form behind the veiled Rasta, draped in white and wreathed in a cloud of smoke. They call him The Honey Man.
When registering for a beekeeping course in 1996, Alistair ‘Twaado’ Jacobs was still a carpenter, little knowing he would become Antigua’s icon for all that is ‘sweeter for the sting’. Now, as Field Officer of the Antigua Beekeepers’ Co-operative, he provides a lifeline to 50 beekeepers and honey hunters. He also teaches the six week course for ‘newbees’, and shares his vision for Caribbean honey with school children. What looks like useless bush to the land developer, is literally a valley flowing with ‘you know what’ in the eyes of The Honey Man.
West Indian honeys, from Trinidad & Tobago in particular, have been winning international prizes for many years. Perhaps their secret is the great diversity of flowering plants in the islands. Continental honey is often produced by bees foraging on just one extensive crop, such as alfalfa. By contrast, the Caribbean honeys have something of the unruly Soca rhythm. Different types of nectar parade during the year like Carnival troupes: a dry season red, then a wet season gold, light coloured when the mangroves blossom in the salty wetlands, and then dark.
Although there are 1,000 flowering plant species in Antigua and more than 3,000 in Trinidad & Tobago, bees can be quite particular. Jamaicans swear that their bees will ignore all other flowers to feed on the flowers of the genip, a fruit tree introduced by the Arawaks. In St Lucia and Dominica, the favourite honey is gathered when the savonette, unique to the Antilles, is in flower. At Christmas, beekeepers on Antigua & Barbuda eagerly anticipate the week-long bloom of logwood, a dyewood introduced from Latin America by the buccaneers in the 16th century.
Beekeeping and honey hunting go back to Egyptian times but bees were only introduced to the Caribbean from Europe in the 17th century. The latest arrivals are the African honeybees. They reached Trinidad in the 1980s, but remarkably, not yet Tobago.
It is part of The Honey Man's job to patrol Antigua's ports for evidence of invasions of African bees and bee diseases. Antigua had always been free of both threats until on 4 March 2005, he discovered a tick-like parasite sucking on bees inhabiting a trap at the capital's Deep Water Harbour. The Varroa or ‘vampire’ mite had finally arrived in Antigua.
Varroa mites have destroyed most of the wild and feral bees in Europe and North America during the 1980s, and have been island-hopping here in the Caribbean throughout the 1990s. According to Tomas Mozer, regional bee inspector in Florida: “We expect it to wipe out at least half of the colonies on the island, like it did in Barbados, St Lucia and other islands”.
Antiguan beekeepers want to keep their reputation for the finest organic honeys. Unlike their counterparts, they will not be dousing the hives with chemicals to combat the mite. “We are going to let nature select a resistant bee”, says The Honey Man, with that unmistakably Rasta confidence. “No chemicals here. Bee wise!”
LIAT Islander Issue 69, August 2005
Antigua hit by ‘Vampire’ mite
Antigua is in the middle of a significant honey production shortage that is expected to last for at least four years. The problem is due to Varroa that came to Antigua’s shores in the first quarter of 2005. In the last year the mites have completely taken over Antigua while Barbuda is clear for the moment. Chief Extension Officer Sereno Benjamin described the situation as a massive problem. One bee farmer, Kathy Knight, has estimated that by 2007 Antigua will have a shortage because the bees are just disappearing. But Benjamin said that a shortage is already here. He related that when the agricultural department wanted honey for display at the Food Fair and to give to boat crews during the Antigua Sailing Week, there was a problem securing enough.
Prior to the Varroa problem, Antigua had between 350-400 honeybee colonies. That population is severely depleted. Richards estimated that only about 20% of his stock has survived the parasites.
President of the Antigua Beekeepers’ Co-operative, Alvin Langlais said that at this time of the year, the Co-operative usually has five barrels of honey. Now they cannot find enough to fill their orders. Many groups will be affected by the decimation of the honeybee population. Knight expects that the farmers will feel the shortage because the bees will not be there to pollinate their crops. “At one time there were no bees in our yard at Parham and after I brought in the bees, we started to get a lot of sugar apples and citrus fruits because of the bees pollinating the trees”.
Langlais agreed. He said that at present producers of melons and cucumbers have reported a significant decrease in their crop yields. Hotels, supermarkets and restaurants are also expected to suffer because the Co-operative will be unable to fulfil their production expectations.
Some measures are being implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture. Benjamin said that the main treatment of the problem is time and colony management. Farmers have already held meetings with agricultural partners such as the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA) on colony management and the Government has employed The Honeyman, Alistair Jacobs, to work specifically with the bee farmers.
One solution that has been suggested is that the farmers change the type of boxes used for the bees to make honey. Instead of a solid bottom hive, the bottom would be made out of mesh wire so that when the bees groom, the mites would drop to the ground. Langlais said that although it is a good solution in theory, the mesh wire would introduce the problem of ants. Usually, ants are no match for bees but in their current weakened state, the bees would be killed and the larvae eaten by the ants. Langlais said that they are currently having problems getting transportation to check all of the hives regularly. They have applied to the Minister of Marine Resources and Agro Industries, Joanne Massiah, who has promised that a vehicle would be provided for that purpose.
Varroa destructor infested St Lucia and has completely wiped out the bee population, according to Dr Anthony Richards, Chief Government Chemist and Member of the Antigua Beekeepers’ Cooperative. Barbuda has not been infected with the mite, as yet, and the Island is being protected as the last refuge for honey production. Richards said that beekeepers in Antigua understand not to bring in foreign bees, used boxes or bee tools. He feels that this rule must also be employed in terms of transfer from Antigua to Barbuda.
AntiguaSun.com, 14 and 17 July 2006
Published in Bees for Development Journal 80 (September 2006)