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World Bee Day Feature – Build Back Better for Bees


Melissophobia
(noun)

An intense fear or dislike of bees. This fear may be overwhelming and cause a great deal of anxiety. The word “melissophobia” comes from the Greek “melissa” meaning honeybee and phobia from the Greek “phobos” meaning fear = literally, fear of bee(s)

Melissophobia is one of many specific phobias. People with specific phobias have a great, sometimes irrational fear of an animal, object, or situation. The U.S.-based National Institute of Mental Health — the largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to mental health research — estimates that 12.5% of adults will experience a specific phobia during their lifetime.

Bees are important for human survival as they play a crucial ecological role. A third of the food produced in the world depend on the pollination services provided by bees. Losing bees would have a damaging effect across all ecosystems.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” This quote has been often attributed to Albert Einstein, although there is no real proof. However, if the honey bees died, the world’s food security would be definitely impacted.

If bees are so important, why are so many persons afraid of them?

Background

On May 22nd, the world celebrates the fourth observance of World Bee Day under the theme Bee engaged – Build Back Better for Bees.  The goal of the UN-designated day is to strengthen measures aimed at protecting bees and other pollinators, which would significantly contribute to solving problems related to the global food supply and eliminate hunger in developing countries.

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, approximately 80% of flowering plant species are pollinated by insects, as well as by birds and bats. At least a third of the worlds agricultural crops depend on bees. A bee will have to visit about four million flowers in order to make a kilogram of honey.

Barbados’s Honey Potential

In Barbados, bees play a vital role in the island’s food and agriculture industries. There are at least 30 species of bees recorded in Barbados. The most common species are the honey bees (Apis mellifera) and the Carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica). The Apis mellifera is one of more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide, most of them wild.

In the past decade, interest in beekeeping — honey production — has increased considerably in Barbados. Apiculture is currently small, but an important part of agriculture on the island.

The Barbados Apicultural Association (BAA) has worked assiduously to develop the beekeeping industry, including sensitizing the local populace about preserving bees and their vital role. To date, 90 beekeepers are registered with the BAA.  In 2018 the National Conservation Commission (NCC) established an apiary lab to assist the Ministry of Agriculture and support bee entrepreneurs. 

Despite the wide-ranging denigration of the hard-working bee, the lust for the sweet and viscous substance in Barbados is unrelenting. The island is the Caribbean’s largest importer of honey. This proclivity for the liquid gold and love of other bee products (90% of which is imported) costs the island approximately 1 million Barbados dollars per year. In 2014 alone, Barbados imported 98,320 kilograms (kg) of honey/syrup, which accounted for 45% of the total honey imports for the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). 

The Barbados Apiculture Association, through support from the Ministry of Agriculture, aims to drastically reduce this figure by producing pure honey and bee products locally. According to Julian Mangal, beekeeper and BAA member, there was an increasing demand for honey locally, but a very notable shortage to meet this demand. “As soon as local beekeepers have honey, within 5 minutes it can be sold. People don’t care if you are selling a gallon or a small 6-ounce bottle. Almost every beekeeper has a waiting list”.

Meet the Bee Keepers

In the lead up to the fourth observance of World Bee Day, CPAG team members spent the week ‘bee-friending’ a few Barbadian apiarists – a fancy word for beekeeper — and learning about their jobs. Who are some of the people in the ‘funny-looking’ wide brimmed hats with fencing veils?

Mr. David Small

Honey man, Mr. David Small started beekeeping in 1977 at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Unit, tasked with boosting the bee population on the island. His interest in bees begun after realising the important role the insects played in the growth and health of crops. Since then, he undertook training in all aspects of apiculture such as beehive management, honey production and bee health. In 2013 he attended the 1st Caribbean Bee College at the St. George’s University, Grenada, and participated in the round table discussion, where he spoke about the way forward for beekeeping in the Caribbean.

Mr. Small has seen his fair share of bees in Barbados. Some count sheep to sleep, David counts bees. As the beekeeper at the National Conservation Commission (NCC), he helps to train persons who are interested in beekeeping. He is also a member of the Caribbean Bee College Board based at the University of Florida. The 2003 varroa mite infestation which almost devastated the entire beekeeping industry (both feral and managed colonies) in Barbados remains a fresh memory for David.

Small frowns on members of the public whose first instinct is to kill bees. He acknowledges that there is a general fear of bees on the island. “Bees are not pests…they are not aggressive; they simply defend their territory. A perfect example…if someone tried to evict you from of your house, you would try to defend your property. It’s the same situation with the bees”. 

Excited to share his love for the busy bees, David invited the CPAG team to a hive removal.

Mrs. Sonia Blackman-Francis

Women around the world have also gotten a taste of honey and become involved in what was once traditionally a male-dominated occupation. A good example is Scarlett Johansson, a Hollywood A-list actress, who started beekeeping after receiving a beehive full of bees as a wedding present. At the Barbados Apicultural Association, this is no exception, with women currently outnumbering men.

Meet Queen bee, Sonia Blackman-Francis, Extension Officer, Barbados Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (BADMC).

Blackman-Francis was introduced to beekeeping over a year ago through a chance encounter. No amount of dissuasion from friends and acquaintances could change her mind. She purchased the requisite equipment – including a size 3x bee suit, as an extra level of protection from bee stings – and has been a busy bee since then.

Looking back, Blackman-Francis remembers “the initial moment of opening the box containing the bees and figuring out how to go about doing it (laugh). I had a bit of fear, but I told myself I can do this. I quickly got over the fear after I started handling the bees often. That was just the start!”

In Sonia’s opinion, beekeeping can be very therapeutic and fascinating. “I often go outside to watch them and I often wonder what they are doing. I no longer think that bees are scary”. The tiny industrious insects no longer intimidate her.


Mr. Julian Mangal

Another ‘new-bee’ to the world of apiculture is Julian Mangal. His wrists were filled with stretchy rubber bands — a typical hive tool used to hold honey comb into frames — when he met with the CPAG team.

Despite being relatively new to the business, he is approached often for tips of the trade and support. According to Mangal, beekeeping is one of those activities where you are always learning. “The more you know, the more you realise how little you know…Initially, I was every other person. I used to duck, run and never wanted to approach the bees. I can’t say that I liked bees at first”.

Before venturing into beekeeping Julian managed a plant nursery, but made the switch to full-time apiculture four years ago. He is currently the Beekeeper at the Walkers Institute for Regenerative Research Education and Design (WIRRED).

Mangal’s abbreviated steps to becoming a Beekeeper (with a smile):

  1. Get the equipment
  2. Get the suit
  3. Start rolling!

He recommends that interested persons join the Barbados Apicultural Association, which offers a variety of mentors and training.

Fast Facts

  1. Male bees are called drones.
  2. A bee colony consists of 20,000 to 60,000 honey bees and one queen.
  3. Bees fly at about 20 mph.
  4. Worker honey bees are female and live for about six weeks.
  5. The queen bee can live up to five years.

Myths/Misconceptions

Despite their importance, many misconceptions have stopped many individuals from becoming interested in beekeeping/protection. Unfortunately, bees are often misunderstood and have had a lot of bad press.

  1. Bees attack unsuspecting humans.          
    Bees sting as a last resort. They tend to sting to defend their nest, so most bees won’t sting unless they are provoked, feel threatened or ‘bee-lieve’ that you are going to hurt the hive.
  2. All bees produce honey.
    Less than 5% of bee species make honey.
  3. Fatal bee stings are common.
    Bee stings can be deadly to people who are allergic to them (but anaphylaxis can be mitigated and, as a result, fatal bee stings are very rare).
  4. All bees sting.
    Not all bees can sting you. There are nine species of ‘stingless’ bees that do have hives and a queen and produce honey.

Threats

The largest contributor to the decline of bee health is the varroa mite, a parasite that attacks hives and spreads diseases. The mite was identified in Barbados in 2003 and was the cause of the collapse of the main apiaries on the island. The mite although it was seen as recent as 2012, has to a large degree, been under control. Fortunately, honey bees have seemingly become resilient to the Varroa mite.

Other threats include humans, frogs, the loss of habitat, and poor management practices, such as the use of harmful pesticides and insecticides.

Impact of volcanic eruptions on the colony

On the matter of the recent particulate ash from the volcanic eruptions in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Beekeeper Julian noticed that there were some significant effects. The ashfall has resulted in short-term effects, and medium-term and long-term effects are anticipated.

With respect to the short-term effects, the ashfall impeded foraging for about two weeks. In the face of that, colonies that had plenty of honey stored could consume their reserves and cope well. Other colonies suffered declines in population as a result of the lack of food. As a result of the volcanic ash, the dust particles impaired their ability to move, resulting in death.

The anticipation for the medium term is that, on the one hand, colonies are not functioning at optimal health. On the other, the flowering that ensued caused many trees and plants to be intensely pollinated, which is conducive to better procreation and better crops.

For those colonies where food shortages occurred, one response is that the colony would limit the queen bee’s egg production from the usual 1200-1500 per day, resulting in slower worker bee population replacement and, hence, reduced foraging. That, in turn, can limit the health of the colony going forward. However, bee colonies are quite resilient in response to environmental decline, for instance by migrating to and building new hives.

That said, in the longer term, Mangal believes that there could be a positive trickle-down effect. The increased fertility of the soil will positively impact the plants and trees in that they can produce better quality nectar, which then spills over to bees. Different to regular years, 5 tree species flowered simultaneously after the effects of the volcanic eruptions diminished, instead of staggered flowering timing. As long as the flowering last long enough, that is the usual 3-4 weeks, there should not be major impacts on the honey crop.

Not only about the honey

The word “bees” automatically conjures up images of golden honey. However, there are other value-added products that can come from a beehive. These include bee venom, royal jelly, propolis (also known as bee glue), beeswax and pollen.

What’s next in Barbados’s bee-world (even if baby steps)?

Beekeepers recognize the importance of public sensitization to raise awareness. In order for bees to stand a fighting chance, they need to be regarded as important ecological assets rather than annoyances. As a start, in 2020, sixteen young Barbadians between the ages of 8 and 16, participated in Junior Beekeeping facilitated by the National Conservation Commission (NCC).

Drawing on his 44 years of beekeeping expertise, Mr. Small notes that the current use of pesticides by farmers is “very detrimental, but there are bee-friendly alternatives. They are not toxic and should be the preferred options by farmers, even though they are a bit more expensive. Therefore, reducing the sale and use of harmful pesticides and moving to bee friendly alternatives would do much to protect bees from extermination.

An important step in revivifying beekeeping in Barbados, Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley identified the apiculture sector as one of five areas in the broader agricultural sector for development.

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