Features

Foray into Beekeeping

Pine Cay was the site of TCI’s first bee hive.
By Diane Taylor

Bees work together in the hive in complex interactions to turn pollen and nectar gathered from flowers into honey.

The 2021 David Attenborough film, “Breaking Boundaries,” tells of a time not too long ago when England had no more short-haired queen bumble bees, a species important for pollination, not a single one. In 1990, they were extinct in the UK due to loss of grassland habitats. To stave off potentially bleak harvests, England sent a brigade of scientists to France where their mission was to steal a hundred of the nectar-drinking insects to ensure a functioning ecosystem that would, in turn, ensure good crops. Theft was an immediate solution to a desperate situation. Bees are that important.

What are the ways that we become part of a new place, to feel that we know the place, to feel like we belong? Becoming friendly with trees is one way. And so, after several months on Pine Cay, I set out one afternoon in 1981 to introduce myself to some of the long-time rooted members of the island.    

Walking through the scrub brush, arms covered in a long sleeved shirt, I scarcely noticed the mosquitoes buzzing and biting about my face so taken was I with the graceful green boughs of Caicos pine trees, their long needles like fountains. Walking innocently on, I met up with a tree I did not recognize, and could not find in my Caribbean tree book. I stepped into its welcome shade, pulled off a glossy dark green leaf and crushed it between my fingers in an effort to identify it by the smell of its juices, as the book said to do. By then, the bites on my face were itchy, so, with the sap of the leaf still on my fingers, I scratched. And scratched. The next morning, my face was unrecognizable—completely covered in large weeping blisters.  

The tree was poisonwood, Metopium toxiferum. I’d given myself a good dose of the irritant urushiol, the same oil that is in poison ivy. This tree, with its own defensive strategies, had things to teach a newcomer.

    

Honey bees are swarming honeycomb cells nestled in a fallen tree trunk in Jamaica.

Soon, I would discover that poisonwood trees have a sweeter side. As part of the PRIDE (Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation) experimental organic garden, it was my job and delight to bring honey bees to the island to ensure pollination. Could a hive of bees survive on Pine Cay? I contacted Dr. Julia Morton, a pioneer in economic botany, by letter (the days before e-mail!) at the University of Miami and she said, yes, there are many nectar- and pollen-producing trees and plants in the Turks & Caicos. She sent me her booklet, Medicinal and Other Plants Used by People on North Caicos. Prime among them was poisonwood, which is especially abundant in nectar and pollen. I was beginning to feel like I knew this tree, like I could engage respectfully with this arboreal neighbour.

Dr. Morton’s other related booklet Honey Bee Plants of South Florida describes many plants (trees, shrubs, palms, vines, herbs, grasses, cacti, and field crops) that are worked by honey bees in Florida. Of the sources she rates as excellent, Pine Cay had ten that are plentiful: seagrape, buttonwood, poisonwood, inkberry, necklace pod, beach morning glory, mahoe, castor bean, palmetto palm, and thatch palm.

“Dee” Taylor, wearing protective headgear, shows off PRIDE’s first bees.

We started with just one hive that included five frames of comb, and a colony of 8,000 mild-mannered Italian honey bees, Apis melifera, with its one queen, all purchased from a beekeeper in Miami. These three pounds of bees were contained in a small wooden box, screening on two sides so they could breathe, and transported with me by plane. At first, airport staff were leery about allowing bees on the plane, “No ma’am! No bees!,” but when I pointed out the extra steel mesh screening around the whole box, they agreed to carry them in cargo. Back on Pine Cay, excitement was in the air as we assembled the knocked down hive kit’s several cut-to-fit pieces of wood, and installed the bees in their new quarters. 

A few mornings later, while still at home (about a ten minute walk from the garden), I heard a strange sound coming from just outside the house. What was that? I walked out the screen door and followed the hum down the path to where there was a large poisonwood tree that had been in blossom for some time. The bees had found it!  Hundreds of them! Even as I write this 40 years later, I still feel the amazement and relief I felt that morning. I’d brought them to a foreign land and they were adapting just fine. Now,  I know that bee colonies are routinely and safely flown thousands of miles to ensure pollination of many kinds of crops.

However, a foreign land had hazards, as in lizards that saw a free meal in bees as they left the hive first thing in the morning to forage. One flick of the tongue and another bee was devoured. To circumvent this predation, we added stilts to the hive. Still the onslaught continued. We placed the stilts in a plastic tub filled with water. This worked. Upon examination, the queen bee was still laying eggs, and still keeping a sense of unity among her numerous colony. 

The beehive on Pine Cay was set in a plastic tub filled with water to discourage lizards from eating the bees.

If the surviving and even thriving colony wasn’t sweet enough to our ears and minds, there was the honey. Eventually, we harvested 70 pounds of comb honey and tasted the golden liquid. Ah, when the floral bouquet touched our tongues, we noticed a more gentle sweetness than store-bought honeys, and a slightly less viscous texture. We were very pleased with the alchemy that had been wrought from soil and sun, blossoms and bees.

Beekeeping is a real possibility for an enterprising soul in the Turks & Caicos Islands. The initial outlay is small, and a hive can multiply from 8,000 to 80,000—depending on equipment size and capacity—in the first year. In addition, there are side businesses like propolis, bee pollen, bee venom, wax, and queen rearing. Queen rearing is potentially the most lucrative business, and is the most important aspect for healthy hives world-wide. Queens need to be raised in isolation to keep them free from disease and to prevent them from breeding with inferior strains. Because the Turks & Caicos is an island domain, and because bees do not travel over large bodies of water, TCI is potentially a good place to raise queens.

Propolis is a resinous mixture that honey bees produce by mixing saliva and beeswax with exudate gathered from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources. It is used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the beehive. Propolis seems to help fight against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It might also have anti-inflammatory effects and help skin heal.

Bee pollen contains vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. It comes from the pollen that collects on the bodies of bees as they fly from one flower to another. Bee venom is the poison that makes bee stings painful. It is given as a shot for bee sting allergy. It is also used for osteoarthritis, Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), nerve pain, and other conditions. Beeswax has been used since prehistory as a lubricant and waterproofing agent, in wax casting of metals and glass, as a polish for wood and leather, for making candles, as an ingredient in cosmetics, and as an artistic medium in painting.

There are challenges! Varroa mites are reddish coloured parasites that live and feed on adult honey bees. They can weaken the colony and make it susceptible to other diseases. Neonicotinoids are insecticides used on farms and urban landscapes. They are absorbed by plants and can be present in pollen and nectar, which are then toxic to bees. Some poisonous plants including oleander have a nectar that is harmless to bees but produces a honey that is toxic to humans. Bee stings can be painful, and a small percentage of people have anaphylactic reactions that can cause death. All things considered, working with bees can be addictively fun and introduce you to a lifelong passion for one of the world’s most complex and social species. 

Speaking of stings, there is such a thing as stingless bees, over 400 species of them in fact, all of which produce honey which sells for much more than honey-bee honey. They are native to tropical and subtropical countries around the world, and were domesticated by the Mayans for their honey and wax.

A beehive creates a variety of products, from left: honey, propolis, pollen, bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar or honey) and wax.

Specifically, Melipona beecheii is a species native to the Yucatan and the entire Caribbean basin that would no doubt thrive in the Turks & Caicos. They are much smaller, and therefore able to extract nectar from tiny narrow flowers that are inaccessible to the larger honey bees. Their hives are much smaller, too, and can be miniature clay pots. Another plus is that they continuously produce queens that do not need to be isolated. They help maintain the health of ecosystems, and are used to pollinate crops, such as strawberry fields in Brazil. And just think—no stingers means no smoke needed to calm aggressive moods of bees that have stingers and know how to use them. 

David Attenborough is 96. When he tells a story about queen bee theft in a documentary on how to save the planet, you perk up your ears and listen. We and fellow travellers—the bees—have things in common. We both depend on Earth for sustenance and shelter, and we both need  oxygen to breathe. Our destinies are intertwined.

Many thanks to B Naqqi Manco, Assistant Director of Research and Development for DECR, for sending me research articles on the raising of Melipona beecheii bees. 



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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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