On Jamaican bees, and their keepers

“Oh Bees,” she says. “I send greetings to your Queen. I wish to be her friend, and to prepare a safe home for her, and for you who are her daughters, and to tell you the news every day. May you carry messages from the land of the living to all souls who dwell in the land of shadows. Please tell me now whether you accept my offer.”

– Margaret Atwood

Yesterday was World Bee Day, so this is a postscript. As far as the Caribbean is concerned, please read my Global Voices colleague Janine Mendes-Franco’s very informative article about the challenges our bees face, especially in Trinidad, here.

Beekeeping has been steadily catching on in Jamaica for some years now. Honey is a valuable product and an amazing food resource, of course, with proven anti-bacterial and sleep-inducing properties and all kinds of other health claims that may or may not be true. However, if you have a bad cold or the flu, it’s incredibly soothing and restoring (combined with other substances). Jamaicans all know about this.

There are other byproducts of bees. In an online teach-in yesterday hosted by the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (NHMJ), the otherwise extremely knowledgeable young students were stumped by a question from Hugh Smith, Chief Apiculture Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. They had not heard of Royal Jelly or Propolis. Gotcha! Otherwise, the students at the “Buzz Session” were enthusiastic and on the ball.

I have been learning a great deal about bees, especially in the Jamaican context. When I fill the bird bath with water, a bee immediately arrives and perches delicately on the edge of the water. I have learned from the experts that bees use water to control humidity and temperature, and also to dilute honey for consumption by themselves and their larvae. They take the water back to their hives. Temperature and humidity have to be precisely maintained for the brood. That is why you see bees fanning at the hive entrance. The evaporation cools down the residents!

Did you know there are no less than 69 species of bees in Jamaica (according to Raw, 1985). The NHMJ’s Zoology collection contains approximately 500 specimens, representing some 40 of these species.

A bee sips water while precariously perched on a plant in a lily pond. (Photo: Tracy at Senti Bees – visit them on Instagram here )

So, I talked to some Jamaican beekeepers. Senti Bees shared this wonderful photo of a thirsty bee with me. I also spoke with Wolde Kristos, who is Founder, Past President and current Manager at Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society in Westmoreland. He pointed out proudly that the Westmoreland Bee Farmers Society has its first woman President, and that women have been empowered through increased training in beekeeping. This has been especially important during pandemic times – and it’s a skill and profession that, once learned, will serve them well “post-COVID” (when is that, by the way?)

The Society has donated a number of bee colonies in the Bluefields Bay community – especially to women. Beekeeping is now a great source of income for them.

There are rural beekeepers and there are urban beekeepers. A young entrepreneur, trained beekeeper and environmental activist from the inner city, Adrian Watson, has been busy with bees for several years now (he just told me he has just sold out of honey, which I am sad about!) His Honai Beez Apiary is planning a Pollination Project, training new beekeepers and raising awareness – involving educators, the private sector and more – and an Urban Bee Hive Project. Adrian is currently seeking funds for more training for low-skilled or unskilled youth and is looking at sustainable beehives made from bamboo. As a seasoned environmental and climate change campaigner, Adrian also advocates for more green spaces in vacant lots in the city of Kingston, where he lives – and where beekeeping activities could take place. This is so badly needed. Adrian is more than just a beekeeper; he has vision and is involved in anything that supports Jamaica’s environmental sustainability. I would like to clone him!

Patricia Parchment, President of the Westmoreland Bee Farmers Society, Bluefields Bay, Westmoreland. (Photo: Courtesy of Wolde Kristos)

Let me finish with a few more fun facts about bees. Did you know:

  • There are honey bees, and there are solitary bees. In Jamaica, we have far more of the latter. Adrian Watson has Western Honey Bees (Apis Melifera).
  • Each beehive has an average of 30,000 bees.
  • Honey bees are very interesting. They can be anywhere from near black through tan to near yellow. This depends on their lineage. The British Black Bee is known for its irritability whereas the New Zealand yellow bee is very docile. Each strain has different properties: fecundit, nectar gathering, longevity etc and a good bee keeper will try to breed them to get the best qualities. You have to keep in mind though that a queen bee may mate with say a dozen drones so any combination of color etc may emerge. So …. black bees seem less common than the intermediate tan ones in Jamaica. All honeybees were introduced into Jamaica. (Vaughn Turland)
  • Bees often die because their wings wear out.

Plus, a photo gallery (see below)…

I will end with this amazing bee quote:

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”

― Henry David Thoreau

And can we please keep in mind:

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

― Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee

Many thanks to the Natural History Museum, Vaughn Turland, Ann Haynes Sutton, Damany Calder, Damion Whyte, Adrian Watson and Wolde Kristos for the photos and information for this blog post!

A quick, last minute plug for the Caribbean Hack, one of Adrian Watson’s current projects. Apply to the UNLEASH Caribbean Hack today. Closing May 23. https://forms.gle/CfwpFTC8QAR8D45b7

6 thoughts on “On Jamaican bees, and their keepers

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