Did you know that 75 per cent of the world’s food crops and 90 per cent of wild flowering plants are dependent on the process of pollination for survival?
So pollinators like bees play a crucial role in ensuring food security and maintaining healthy ecosystems.
But the UN estimates that close to 35 per cent of pollinators likes bees and butterflies face extinction globally. As it seeks to raise awareness for the important role that bees play as pollinators, and the threats they face, the UN has designated May 20 as World Bee Day.
The date wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. May 20 is the birthday of Anton Jansa, born in Slovenia, who is widely recognised as the pioneer of modern beekeeping techniques.
To mark World Bee Day locally, the Tobago Apicultural Society is selling 150 European queen bees at $100 each to interested beekeepers.
Business Day recently spoke with the society’s president, Kevin Smith, about the sale and the society’s efforts to promote beekeeping.
“Since becoming president in 2017, I would have received some calls from beekeepers in Trinidad who wished to have some European stock in the apiary for many reasons.
“We have beekeepers over there (in Trinidad) asking for European queens from Tobago,” said Smith, on the inspiration behind the sale.
Set up in 1992, the society is a network of beekeepers across Tobago. However, membership in the group isn’t exclusive to beekeepers. For $100 a year, anyone can become a member and have access to its training programmes to learn more about beekeeping.
The society is "basically the organisation responsible for the voice of beekeepers on the island, but it is also a place where people can get information and training about beekeeping.
“But you don’t have to be a practising beekeeper to be part of the organisation. We opened it up after realising that people can have a passion for beekeeping and not take care of bees, for various reasons.”
Apart from the production of honey – the best-known aspect of beekeeping – the group also wants to promote other byproducts associated with beekeeping, such as pollen, propolis and beeswax.
“These items usually fetch a fair dollar and also can be hard to get.
“So we encourage other businesspeople to be a part of the group so they can be directly in line with the producers themselves so they can guarantee themselves that their product is clean.”
On the group’s decision to sell the virgin European queen bees, Smith said demand from Trinidad for European bees has always been high.
European bees are mainly found in Tobago, while Africanised bees are mainly found in Trinidad.
He explained that people prefer to work with European bees, because they are less defensive and therefore less aggressive.
“I would have noticed the demand for the Europeanised bees in Trinidad and said, this is a market that we (the society) can tap into.
“We are offering to Trinidad a bee that is not as aggressive, but just as productive.”
In addition to the high demand, he said selling queen bees also makes beekeeping more lucrative.
He explained that honey is most typically extracted from beehives in the dry season. In a harvesting season, one hive can produce up to 20 litres of honey.
Smith said the revenue generated from honey production can be limited.
But, he said, “Queen-rearing, when I did my research, is something that a beekeeper can get revenue from year-round, once the demand is there.
“With that being said, I simply went to some of the premier beekeepers of Tobago and I pitched the idea to them, saying we should come together and try to service the market (for European bees) in Trinidad.”
After proposing the idea, Smith said he brainstormed its logistics, including costing, with a group of Tobago beekeepers.
He said it was there they came up with the idea of selling the150 virgin European queen in recognition of World Bee Day.
Explaining the pricing and why virgin bees were specifically being sold, Smith said, "One of the reasons for the pricing is that we are trying to make a turnover…instead of a 1,000-per-cent profit per bee."
Based on conversations with potential buyers, before the sale, Smith said people preferred to buy the virgin bees because they were cheaper.
As a queen bee mates, especially earlier on in its life, it stores semen. So, as a queen bee continues to mate throughout its lifetime, it would accumulate more semen which makes it more valuable to its colony and therefore more costly to purchase.
Most buyers found it better to buy a virgin queen bee from the society and mate it themselves as opposed to buy a mated queen bee which would have cost them $300.
With the group introducing more Europeanised bees to Trinidad, the question of the ecological effect of the action arises.
For example, Smith said Trinidad’s Africanised bees actually originated in Brazil in the 1950s when Brazilian scientist Warwick Kerr crossbred existing bees in Brazil with bees from Africa.
However, the Africanised bees that Kerr crossbred were then accidentally released into the wild.
“In previous years, before the Brazilian scientist brought the South African bee to Brazil, South Africa would have boasted of a high honey output.
“The government of Brazil at that time would have him (the scientist) create a bee that would be superior.
“In his wisdom, controversially, he would have brought in some queens from Africa and crossbred them with the existing Brazilian stock.”
By the 1970s, the Africanised bees had spread from Brazil throughout much of South America. In doing so, they displaced and, in some cases, took over existing bee colonies.
Somehow, the Africanised bees were brought to Trinidad and, according to Smith, the first colony was recorded here in 1975. Afterwards, it took just over ten years for Africanised bees to displace the Russian and Italian bees which were previously recorded in Trinidad.
But Smith assured that introducing Tobago’s European bees to Trinidad will not affect the existing bee populations on the island. He said European bees already exist in Trinidad, though their presence isn’t widespread.
“There were European bees in Trinidad prior to the introduction of the Africanised bees. It has no documented date as to when the first colony of European bees would have arrived in TT.
“However, the first apiary of these bees in Tobago was recorded at the old botanic station in Scarborough.
“No one brought any of the Africanised bees from Trinidad to Tobago, so Tobago maintained its European heritage. The two main species that were brought to Tobago were the Carniolan as well as Italian bees.”
Given it was high demand that fuelled the society’s World Bee Day sale, Smith said the response has been tremendous. Of the 150 queen bees for sale, 110 have already been sold.
But the recent spike in covid19 cases and resulting restrictions have presented some challenges.
“We must make note that one of the reason that all the bees haven’t been sold out as yet is because of the covid19 situation at the moment."
Covid19, he said, "is heavily affecting the mobility of personnel and the ability of people to collect, especially with restricted movement between Trinidad and Tobago.
“Just today, two people had to reschedule their order, and that was a total of 45 queens. If you do the math, that’s equivalent to $4,500 has been put on pause as result of covid, because they aren’t able to make it to Tobago or collect.”
For now, the society is limiting the sale of bees to trained beekeepers, as it is not assuming responsibility for anyone buying bees who isn’t adequately trained to handle them.
But for people interested in learning how to handle bees and become beekeepers, the group has an apiary in Tobago where it does training.
“We are not in the practice of giving any and anyone bees. We have to see that you are capable of taking care of them, as well as some senior beekeeper must recommend you before we sell you bees. Again, we don’t want to be careless about it.”
Smith said the response to the society’s sale is a testament to the financial viability of the local beekeeping industry. Over the past three years, while he's been president, Smith said he has worked to change the local perception of beekeeping.
To him, beekeeping isn’t only about honey production.
“There are other products that bees produce. One of them is this initiative we are taking, which is the sale of queen bees.
“Also, there is the production of beeswax, and the market for that is relatively good…it usually sells in the range of $50 to $80 per pound for beeswax."
A natural wax produced by bees, beeswax is used for many purposes including as a component in the creation of candles, polishes and even cosmetics.
He said people have also expressed an interest in buying bee pollen which the group is working to sustainably harvest and bring to the local market.
As well as being a superfood for bees, Smith said pollen is also a source of nutrients for humans.
He added, “One product that is still in development, and we’re still trying to get some local research done to bring it to the table, is propolis. That’s a new product we’re doing some research on currently, so it will be on the market as soon as next year.”
A resin-like material created by bees using a mixture of bee saliva, beeswax, and materials from trees, propolis is generally known as “bee-glue.” Propolis has been found to be a treatment for gastrointestinal disorders, gynaecological issues, cancer and dermatological problems.So for the Tobago society, this World Bee day marks a new beginning.
“This World Bee Day sale is a pilot project, as we’ve started to gather information so we’ll know how to better service the market for next year,
“So this isn’t a one-time sale, and it’s not only because of World Bee Day. There’s a market for it, and we will continue. We are going to continue to show members of the public how profitable beekeeping is and it’s not only honey that you can get from bees, but other products.”
Pain points in the Trinidad and Tobago honey industry
Trinidad and Tobago is home to more than 300 registered beekeepers and over 7,000 bee colonies. TT’s honey dominated quality tests in London for more than a decade. But despite its quality there are still major threats to the industry. A lack of local testing facilities, an inability to display its quality beyond TT’s shores and an industry have been for years some of the pain points in the honey sector.
In TT, honey was one of the first agricultural sectors to be regulated, as a result of the Beekeeping and Bee Products Act in 1935.
Beekepers continued honing their craft up until 1986, when TT first entered the UK National Honey Show in London. Over a 14-year period, between 1986 and 2000, TT accumulated a total of 58 awards – 32 to Tobago and 26 to Trinidad – which included two first places and the Hender Challenge Cup.
The National Honey Show is a well known benchmark for testing the quality honey in the industry worldwide and the better the quality, the better the price.
TT, like most of the Caribbean, had an edge when it came to honey. Because of a rich array of flowers, bees were able to bring back pollen to the hives from various plants, giving TT’s honey a unique taste. TT also benefited from an invasion of Africanised honey bees, which produce a higher-quality honey than European bees.
Honey is tested for purity in these competitions. Most impure honey, when tested in water, would dissolve because of its high water content, but in the National Honey Show, judges test for more attributes, including toxins like pesticides, ash and other contaminants.
Better testing became mandatory in 2001, which left TT at a disadvantage as it had no testing facilities. Since then TT has not been able to enter the contest.
The industry has not seen much growth since, either. Underdevelopment in the honey industry, according to a study by the Economic Development Board of the Ministry of Planning in 2014, can be attributed to several factors.
A lack of forage lands and testing facilities have hindered the progress of TT beekeepers. Because of this, the supply is less than the demand and those wanting to export were discouraged.
Worldwide, the prevalence of pests and predators, indiscriminate application of pesticides and herbicides and a shortage of forage for bees have threatened the industry.
But there is still a high demand for honey. In 2019 beekeepers worldwide produced 497,000 metric tons of honey. TT's contribution to that was about 57 tons, according to the global sourcing hub Tridge.
The industry is not limited to honey, either. Other products can be produced and marketed by beekeepers.
Beeswax is the second most important product to come out of beekeeping. It is commonly used in making candles, but in recent years became a primary component in skin care products: it's said to promote skin repair and improvements.
Pollen foraging is also important, as bee pollen is high in protein. Bee pollen is a mixture of pollen bees collect from flowers, saliva, and nectar or honey. Bees carry these pollen balls back to the hive in sacs on their legs and store them in honeycomb where it ferments into “bee bread,” which feeds the colony. Beekeepers collect pollen from bees and sell it to the healthfood industry where it is touted as being exceptionally nutritious and having other significant health benefits.
Royal jelly, a bee secretion usually harvested and preserved for the queen bee, has positive effects on the immune system, and propolis – a resin that bees collect from trees – can be also used for medicinal purposes.
The 2014 EDB report suggested that government should focus on local supply and developing the sector into a small-scale, niche industry.
The report suggested education for a new generation of beekeepers, which would include technical and business management training. It also suggested a marketing drive to facilitate the production of local beekeeping. Local testing facilities are also needed to ensure the quality of honey, and finally better communication between government and the beekeepers.
People interested in learning more about the Tobago Apicultural Society and its products can e-mail email@example.com or contact Kevin Smith at 388-1650