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Honey trade - not so sweet for beekeepers

Monday, June 9, 2014
Beekeepers inspect honey in a hive at Bede Rahjaram’s hillside apiary in Diego Martin. PHOTO: Shirley Badahur

Bede Rahjaram, former president of the T&T Beekeepers Association, was named after the Venerable Bede because he was born on the feast day of the seventh-century English monk.


He celebrated his birthday last week and entered his 35th year as a beekeeper.


That his name sounds similar to “bees” is probably just coincidence. So too is the fact that his father also kept bees—Rahjaram did not discover this until he was well into his own beekeeping career.


Back in the seventh century, the Venerable Bede may have been lucky enough to have tasted honey. 


In the Middle Ages, in fact as far back as 15,000 years ago, humans were collecting honey from wild beehives. The Egyptians were the first society to attempt to domesticate bees. Merchants would transport hives and giant jars of honey up and down the Nile on boats to sell to villagers.


Cleopatra was said to have bathed in milk and honey. It is also claimed that she invented the first vibrator by filling a gourd full of angry bees which began to buzz and vibrate.


But it wasn’t until the 18th centur,y when Europeans invented movable hives, that beekeeping became a commercial enterprise. The ability to transport bee colonies made the industry sustainable. Previously, collecting honey meant destroying the whole colony. 


With European colonisation, bees arrived in the Caribbean and have been established in T&T for over 100 years. Honey was exported from these islands in quantities of tens of thousands of pounds a year by the middle of the 20th century. 


Then the Africanised bee arrived, a more aggressive, more productive sub-species which arrived in Trinidad from South Africa via Brazil in 1979. They overran the population of European bees completely and threatened a crisis. The government intervened, attempting to cull the bees, and the number of beekeepers dwindled. 


Initially it was feared they would kill the honey industry entirely, but numbers of apiaries are back up to pre-1979 levels. 


There are currently around 300 beekeepers and 7,000 colonies in Trinidad and 16 beekeepers and 450 colonies in Tobago, according to Gladstone Solomon, president of the Tobago Apicultural Society.



Bees dying out abroad



Worldwide, the picture for bees is not so rosy. In the US, numbers have plummeted. In Europe, the EU has banned the use of toxic pesticides that are thought to be killing them off.


“They don’t know the exact reasons,” Rahjaram says, “but they suspect the main cause of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), is due to the GM foods.”


British journalist Alison Benjamin is the author of three books about urban beekeeping intended to encourage people in inner cities to keep hives in their garden, to replenish the falling populations and promote bees as essential for ecosystems to thrive. 


In an article last March, Benjamin wrote, “When I wrote A World Without Bees to investigate why honeybees were mysteriously disappearing across the US and parts of Europe, one of the conclusions I came to—having talked to beekeepers, scientists, farmers and pesticide manufacturers, and waded through piles of academic papers—was that we must suspend the use of some neonicotinoid pesticides until we had a better idea of what harm they may be causing our bees.”


In April 2013, the EU did vote to suspend neonicotinoids after a report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found they posed a “high acute risk” to honey bees.


In September, chemical manufacturer Syngenta challenged the two-year EU ban on the pesticides thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid, saying the testing procedure was flawed.


The US, notorious for heavily spraying its crops, refuses to stop. Food giant Monsanto (described on its own Web site as a “sustainable agricultural company” but on Wikipedia as a “multinational chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation and leading producer of genetically engineered seed”) is the world’s leading GM food producer and advocate.


Many environmentalists and nutritionists believe the pressure asserted by multinational companies like Monsanto influences the US policy on food production methods.


The US attitude is perplexing since the majority of US bees are kept for pollination purposes, not to produce honey. Pollination is an essential agricultural process for disseminating seeds that grow into crops.


Benjamin says, “Of the 100 crop species responsible for providing 90 per cent of food worldwide, 71 are dependent on bee pollination, according to UN estimates.” 


The knock-on effect of bees dying is enormous for world ecologies and economies. Benjamin says the estimated cost of the loss of 10 million beehives worldwide in the past six years is between US$37 and US$91 billion, annually.



Sweet taste of honey



Honey in T&T is expensive—a 300-ml jar costs around $85, a one-litre jar $200. The high price is mostly due to the top quality of the honey. 


T&T beekeepers have won 58 awards at the National Honey Show in London and would have won many more if the rules of the competition hadn’t changed in 2001, effectively barring them from competing.


Honey prices have also risen because production recently dropped in T&T, not due to bee decline but because for two years (2011 and 2012) the dry season was almost non-existent, Rahjaram says. There was no honey and bees were kept alive using syrup.


Bees produce in the dry season when plants and trees come into flower. 


Rahjahram points to a tall cypress tree and explains, "In Trinidad the majority of flowers open in the dry season when there is more sunlight and the trees are stressed out thinking they might die (due to lack of water). They attempt to produce seeds, in case they die, to support the next generation."


"Bees," he explains, "have special stomachs to collect nectar. They suck it up and store it." They then come home and deposit it in hexagonal honeycombs. Once a small unit is full, they produce wax from their glands and seal it off and when a whole shelf is sealed with wax you know it's ready.


Rahjahram and another beekeeper and honey producer, Jerome Lawrence, who owns Nature’s Harvest apiary in Maraval, took the T&T Guardian up into the bush behind Rahjaram home in Diego Martin to show us the hives that make up his apiary, Honey of the Valley. 


In full protective gear and with a smoker to becalm any boisterous bees we get to see what a hive looks like. 


The two men locate the queen and point her out. She is larger than the rest at about an inch and a quarter long. She mates within two days of being born and stores the sperm inside her body so she can lay eggs continuously for up to five years. 


They take out a shelf the bees have recently finished. The honey oozes from inside and they cut off a block with a knife to taste it.


Under a 1947 Act of Parliament, honey from abroad is banned from being imported into T&T. Beekeepers say this protects bees from disease and protects the local honey trade. 


Recently, illegal imports from Grenada have been seized and sent back. Rahjaram believes they should have been destroyed.


Grenada is not happy and has lobbied T&T for years to revert to the Treaty of Chaguaramas and the clause on free trade between Caricom partners, but Rahjaram is opposed to international trading in honey and encourages people to report foreign honey if they see it for sale on shelves.


His major concern is protecting his own and his colleagues’ colonies to maintain the standard of local honey. He is determined to safeguard against imports from places like China whose environmental practices are scarcely compliant with global standards. 


Last month however, Minister of Trade Vasant Bharath said that a laboratory was being completed that would be able to test the chemical composition of honey and that once that had been built the Government will take legislation to Parliament to change the Beekeeping Act. 


“On a phased basis we will allow imported honey to come in,” Bharath said. The laboratory is scheduled to be finished by September. 


Bharath noted that honey here “is extremely expensive in comparison to the other Caribbean islands.” 


Last Friday, members of the All T&T Apiculture Cooperative protested in Port-of-Spain to raise public awareness about the dangers of importing honey and to ensure the minister has all precautions and facilities in place to test imported honey.


Beekeeping in this part of the world, it seems, is a sticky business.



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