Sweet Island Honey
The Beekeeping tradition of the Bay Islands provides a way of saving Honduras bees from Africanization

July 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v5-7-Feature-BeesBeekeeping is a family tradition on the Bay Islands. While the islands’ bee population is particularly vulnerable to weather and hurricanes, it has become a bastion of European bees, specifically Italian bees. The archipelago is still and amazingly unaffected by the aggressive and less productive Africanized bees.

Roatan’s honey comes from maintained hives and wild bees whose nests are gathered by honey hunters. Several people on Roatan gather wild honey, smoking out bees that make their nests in trees. The practice is controversial as the bees have little chance of survival after most of their food source is gone. “People who hunt wild honey leave the bees stranded,” says Pastor Perry Elwin, 44, who has been a beekeeper for over 30 years.

Over the years Perry has managed to build-up his beehive community to 13, just 100 meters from his French Harbour home. Each hive has several hundred thousand bees. “If you maintain several hundred thousand [bees in each hive] you’re doing OK,” said Perry, who carries his fascination with beekeeping from his father-in-law Vincent Hyde, who taught him about bees when Perry was still a boy.

Off season Elwin has to check on his bees only once a month. In season he checks every box 2-3 times a week. But the honey production can vary greatly year-to-year and one never knows how abundant the pollen will be. In 2006, Perry’s honey production peaked at 100 gallons, and in 2007, it fell to 50 gallons. “There was very little pollen this year,” explains Perry who picks around 2.5 gallons of honey from a small bee box and 5 gallons from a big box. The bee boxes where bees make their hives are made from uncured lumber and painted white. Frames lined with wax are slid vertically into the box and over time accumulate as much as seven gallons of honey. The boxes are stacked vertically on top of one other, as many as six.

In 2005, Perry gathered 75 gallons of honey of which 60 gallons he packed and put up for sale as “Elwin’s Honey” at island stores. To produce the honey the sweet product has to be extracted, drained into a pail, cleaned of wax and impurities, and placed in bottles that are then labeled. The honey is sold in Eldon’s, Lula’s, Woody’s and Fantasy Island.

Perry says that for much of the honey sold around the island, the base is sugar, not nectar. Many beekeepers feed their bees with sugar and add as much as 30%-40% water before they sell it. “My honey is pure and it doesn’t crystallize,” says Elwin who raises Italian bees, the only type of domesticated bee living on Roatan. Bay Islands were fortunate not to become overridden with Africanized bees that have overwhelmed much of South and North America, endangering local domesticated bee communities.

The Italian bees raised on the island can count on a few dependable sources of pollen and flowers of cohoon palms are especially liked by the insects. “If the bees here liked mango blossom, we [Roatan beekeepers] would be in luck,” said Elwin, who explained that mango blossom is likely too acid for bees to use. Right now the best place for bees is Diamond Rock and Santa Helena. That is where the best, most varied flowers and pollen can be found. Diamond Rock also boasts the islands biggest beekeeper community: five people keep hives there.

Roatan’s typical bee season lasts from April to September. Once the rain sets in, the amount of pollen the bees can find becomes small and taking out any additional honey would threaten the bee’s existence. Honey left after the keeper ‘robes’ them is barely enough for their survival.

Roatan honey consumption is greater than the honey the island produces. The island is also a market for honey brought if from Honduras and the US. There are several honey vendors who regularly visit the island from the mainland. One of them is Juan Manuel Nietos who every month makes a journey from San Lorenzo to Roatan to sell his sweet product. In a shoulder bag he carries recycled 750ml bottles filled with golden colored dense fluid. He walks from door to door offering a liquid that is both sweet and healthy- honey. Nietos’s family has been in the bee keeping business for generations. The family formed a micro company, “El Panelito,” employs six people and produces eight barrels, or 1,500 liters of honey a year. The honey is gathered in two harvests, a big one coinciding with major flower bloom in May, and a smaller one in October.

African bees have rendered havoc with Mainland Honduran beekeepers that have resorted to burning forest patches to eradicate the troublesome insect. Some of them take advantage of the Bay Islands market and an easy 10% to 20% mark-up to sell their product which comes in three main varieties.

Perry Elwin tends to one of his 13 beehives in French Harbour.

Perry Elwin tends to one of his 13 beehives in French Harbour.

“White Star” honey (Miel Estrella Blanca) he sells for Lps. 150 and it serves as natural medicine for ailments such as gastritis. It is made by a medium size black bee that doesn’t bite. The “Castle” honey (Miel de Castilla) sells for Lps. 100 and is great for general consumption with waffles and bread. Only on Roatan is this “Castle” honey produced. A yellow bee with black antennas and a ferocious bite makes this most widely available type of honey in Honduras. The yellow and black mainland Honduras bee that is smallest in size makes this most valuable honey, “Jimerito” “Jimerito” and is sold at Lps. 300. “There are not as many flowers on Roatan as on the mainland,” said Nietos. According to the honey seller the best places for beekeeping on the island are in Punta Gorda, Diamond Rock and Port Royal.

When in 1956 Africanized bees were accidentally introduced and released in Brazil, it took 30 years before the Africanized bees reached Central America and many desperate beekeepers just abandoned their hives. It took several decades to rebuild the beekeeping industry and just as things were looking up, in 1998 Hurricane Mitch hit. The damage was so devastating to the Honduras beekeeping industry and being a honey exporter, the country had to import the product.

The Bay Islands worst affected area was Guanaja, which at that point was the most vibrant beekeeping community of the archipelago. The island has been a Bay Islands honey producing center for decades until Mitch. During the storm almost all of the islands trees and pollen producing plants were destroyed or damaged and almost all delicate Italian bee colonies were destroyed. Only a few survived and nearly a decade later only one beekeeper, Mr. Dave, was able to restart beekeeping and currently has three bee boxes in North-East bite. Utila, with only 3,500 inhabitants, has no beekeepers.

Elwin says that the bees are very delicate and subject to weather changes. “They get diseases just like humans. If they get parasites, it’s best to destroy the whole nest,” says Perry whose bees suffered a parasite infection three years ago. The parasites attack the bees and bee larva and when one nest becomes infected, it threatens the entire bee community living in proximity. One also has to be vigilant of marching army ants who can destroy a bee hive overnight.

According to Perry the best time to ‘rob honey’ is between 9 and 11 am, when the most of the bees are out working and in the afternoon from 3 to 4 pm. Elwin uses a smoker to control the bees while he robes their honey. He uses fever grass pressed into an aluminum container and, with a few pieces of pinewood, lights it. “You can’t have honey without it,” Elwin says about his smoker. “The bees would be just too uncontrollable without the smoke.” The smoke is used to calm the bees down, disorient them a bit, and pacify them. “I’ve been stung so many times that I don’t swell anymore,” said Elwin looking over his fingers.

If and once one bee stings, other bees immediately smell the venom and become more aggressive. The only way to react is to stay calm and take out the stinger and cover with light colored clothing. The trick is not to panic, not to run or wave your arms. All of that just makes worker bees more aggressive and ready to sting while defending their nest.

Perry Elwin tends to one of his 13 bee hives in French Harbour.

Perry Elwin tends to one of his 13 bee hives in French Harbour.

Worker bees are responsible for feeding the queen, gathering nectar and for maintaining, cleaning and protecting the nest. During the height of the season, hardworking worker bees live only two weeks. An average bee flies within three miles of the hive, but there are bees that fly as far as five miles looking for flower nectar.

The non-working bees of each nest are the drones. If the population of drones in a hive reaches one-eighth, the nest could de in trouble. Drones don’t work or sting. They just eat and burden the entire nest. Still, drone bees are not useless. Their only, but vital role is to ensure that once a year the Queen is impregnated. In June or July, the queen will fly out of her nest and mate with one drone who after impregnating her, falls dead. A queen bee lays between 1,500 and 3,000 eggs a day for entire life, sometime as many as five to eight years.

Queen bees live between five and eight years, but can at any moment be de-crowned by a younger, stronger, more fertile queen. Occasionally the nest is split amongst the two competing bees and workers have to choose which queen they will serve. It is the beekeepers role to make another box for the departing queen so the tribe doesn’t need to migrate too far.

Her abdomen is noticeably larger than that of other bees, but to facilitate identification many beekeepers will mark her with a daub of paint. According to Perry, raising queens can be the most lucrative as individual insects can be sold for as much as $400-$500. This year Elwin has a standing offer from mainland beekeepers for his Italian bee queens of $200. “People on the mainland know that the island bees are not Africanized and are willing to pay for them,” says Elwin. [/private]

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