Roatan’s European Bees Keeps the Island Blooming
The more time you spend around bees the more you understand their world and appreciate their work and function. One queen runs the whole hive and when a new queen is born, the old queens leaves the hive with roughly half the workers.
The queen’s job is to lay down eggs that spawn the next generations of bees. The worker bees themselves work hard gathering pollen for around 35-45 days producing about a one-tenth of teaspoon of honey.
The workers basically work themselves to death. The queen bee’s other job is to propagate new hives. The queen can live much longer, up to five years, and she lays around 2,500 eggs per day. If the queen dies the worker bees will feed royal jelly to the larva that then develops into another queen.
Worker bees have 170 odorant receptors.
Worker bees have 170 odorant receptors they use to communicate with other bees and to distinguish different types of flowers. The individual bee has to find an efficient way of communicating what they know and what they found to the other bees. In order to do that the worker bees communicate where good sources of food can be found by doing a ‘waggle dance.’
Lavender flowers that are extremely rich in nectar attract bees from kilometers away.
Worker bees forage the island to gather pollen and flower nectar. The workers also build the hive, protect it from other bees and ants. They also circulate the air around the queen by beating their wings.
The third type of bee in the hive is the underappreciated, sometimes hated drones. These are the male bees that breed with the queen and never leave the hive. The only time they do is when the winter comes and then the life in the hive becomes about survival, the drones are kicked out and die.
The honey is used as food storage for the winter. The bees are very efficient and produce more honey then they need, on Roatan perhaps three times more then they need.
The island is home to European bees and fortunately no Africanized bees have come here. Mainland Honduras has many problems with those “killer bees” and in 2019 two people had been killed by those bees in Siguatepeque, Honduras’ epicenter of beekeeping.
“Killer bees” are descendants of 26 swarms of The East African lowland honey bee that escaped a quarantine in Brazil in 1957. They have been causing havoc in the Americas ever since. They arrived
in Honduras in the 1970s and made it to Texas in 1990 and now have reached Canada.
Africanized bees is a hybrid of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the East African lowland honey bee (A. m. scutellata) and other European honey bees such as the Italian honey bee (A. m. ligustica), Iberian honey bee (A. m. iberiensis). The Africanized bees are much more aggressive then European honeybees and can chase a person 400 meters when the bees feel threatened.
The island is home to European bees.
Romeo Fausto Ariola, 59, is a bee whisperer of sorts. He can blow some smoke into their eyes and make them give up their honey without making them angry. Fausto is a Garifuna bornin Sangreya, a small village on the Honduran coast. He has a weathered, brown leathery skin and he is as calm as they come. Surrounded by hundreds of angry bees flying just centimeters from his face he stays calm as a rock.
Fausto focuses his sight on the honeycombs and uses his five-inch knife to cut off the hanging beehive sections, he then places them in a five gallon bucket at his feet. In order to keep the bees confused he smokes the hive blowing it deep into the cavity that the bees created. “La Prensa makes excellent smoke,” he says about his technique of rolling up a newspaper and creating mesmerizing smoke that keeps the bees disorientated and calm. “I can work naked, I don’t use a mask or gloves,” says Fausto. Indeed, he doesn’t.
If the bees have a lot of honey that they worked for they don’t give up without a fight. “Hoy están bravos – they are really angry today,” says Fausto about his bees in a hive removal project from a house in Palmetto. After removing the soffit from the house Fausto uses his smoker to chase the bees away from the honey. On that day even Fausto received a couple stings.
Helping Fausto with the bee extraction is Larry Ebanks from Crawfish Rock. Larry often has to remove bees from houses where they make their home. Unlike Fausto he has his own bee-suit, gloves and veil. Over time Larry worked out his own technique of taking out bees making their hives in walls, soffits and roofs. Bees like quiet and when they notice a structure that is visited only for a couple weeks a year, they will often move in.
The idea is to open the area where the bees live without damaging the structure of the house. Larry likes to work at night, preferably around full moon when the bees are calmer. He uses a vacuum to place the bees inside a box.
“It’s best not to be too aggressive with them, not to swap after them. They just get more cross,” says Larry. He is tired and hot inside his bee suit. Larry pulls on his lip where a bee left her stinger. “They are more aggressive if there is honey there to protect,” he says smiling.
I can work naked, I don’t use a mask or gloves.
The trick is to trap the queen because if she remains behind the bees will come back. All the honey has to be removed from the area so the bees would have no incentive to come back.
A mixture of diesel and insecticide is sprayed all around the area where the bees made their home. Bees don’t like dirty, smelly places.
Larry sometimes places the relocated bees inside specially built boxes. The trick is to move the queen there or make the box seem attractive enough for the stressed bees to move the queen themselves. “Lemon grass is excellent for attracting the bees to a new hive,” says Larry. He knows where every lemon grass bush is in Palmetto and quickly runs out to collect a couple handfuls of lemon grass.
As he works around the bees, Larry uses a spray of water mixed with sugar to spray onto the bees to make them fly slower. Once all the honeycombs have been removed from the house a mixture of insecticide and diesel sprayed from a bottle onto the place where the bees had a hive makes them less likely to return. Every piece of wax and honey has to be extracted. If there is honey, the bees and the queen are bound to return.
The trick is to spot the queen and that is not an easy task. The workers will protect her to their death and she will escape into the far reaches of the cavity. “The queen is long and narrow. Her wings are small and even if she tries to fly, she just falls down quick,” says Fausto. Once she is caught, she can be placed inside the beehive.
The honey needs to be squeezed out the same, or maybe the next day after harvesting. If not, the fruit flies move in and maggots go to work on the honey.
Another person making some extra income from bees is Raymond who lives in Los Fuertes and walks the island bush “robbing honey” from wild bees. He walks around in hills filled with Cahoon palms with his smoker looking for a hive. “I don’t know how to move the hive, I only take the honey,” says Raymond. He doesn’t wear gloves, but he wears a full-facemask with a plastic visor. “Try to leave some honey in the box if you want the queen to stay,” advises Raymond.
Another group making a living from bees is a seven-person co-op from Corozal. Isidro Flores is the co-op’s president. “We need to do everything possible to keep the Africanized bees away,” says Nuñez, another co-op member.
In 2013 the group started with three beehives. By 2016 it had 30, and in 2019 it has 70 beehives. The co-op sells their bee products under the name “Island Honey.” There is the honey itself, Medicated Honey, Soap, cream and shampoo.
Honeybees live in hives of 40-100,000 strong and as Roatan forests and trees are destroyed by the thousands; bees have less places to build their hives and forage for food.
The trick is to spot the queen.
The Roatan bees flee areas where the trees have been cut down and, according to Flores, increasingly move their hives into people’s homes. “You have to seal the house really good so the bees don’t have a place to get in.” Overuse of insecticides is threatening to the bees. While that is an issue on the mainland, Roatan is virtually pesticide free.
Roatan has another bee species producing delicious honey. The stingless honeybees or simply meliponines are working side by side with honeybees, carpenter bees, orchid bees and bumblebees. Their stingers are so small that cannot be used to sting a human. If they do sting, they leave a mark similar to that of a mosquito.
Some trees and shrubs in Central American forests rely exclusively on the stingless bee for pollination. This is a particular problem on the Honduran mainland where the Africanized honeybee ignores flora in the tomato family, leaving it unpollinated.
The stingless bees have been bred by the Mayans all over Central America. Mayans considered honey sacred and even worshiped a bee god called Ah MucenCab. The stingless bees were and sometimes still are used as pets. Their tree log hives are hung in proximity to homes and if properly maintained can last 80 years. The Mayan beekeeping tradition is quickly disappearing.
Meliponines are working side by side with honey bees.
The Melipona honey was used to produce a fermented alcoholic drink called balche. Similar to mead. Balche is made of fermented honey and bark of the balche tree. Traditionally brewed in a canoe; balche drink has been used in medicinal and ritual practices as it’s ergoline compounds of the drink produces a psychotropic effect in people who drink it.
The stingless bee honey placed on an irritated eye flushes impurities and infection from the area.
Pastor Perry Elwin, another island beekeeper with decades of experience says: “There are several natural predators that prey on the hardworking bee. The ants can destroy a hivein a single night.” That is why bees benefit from humans taking care of them. Also, humans benefit from the honey, wax and pollination the bees provide.
April to September is the island’s typical honeybee season. flowers of cohune palms are an ample source of nectar for the bees. The blossom of the mangoes isn’t good for the bees. They like the mango fruit.” Pastor Perry says that mango blossom is too acidic for bees to use.
Pastor Perry comes from a long tradition of Bay Island beekeepers. There is a new generation of beekeepers as well. Brion James, an American musician who has been based in West End since the 1990s has gotten into beekeeping watching YouTube videos and basically learning from his own mistakes. He is now the go-to person to do beehive extractions.
The best place, perhaps the only place to get bee supplies is a small store in French Harbour. Greg Norman at Carnagio sells the Honduran made bee boxes with 10 frames for just over $45. Norman has also beekeeping equipment such as veils, gloves, suits and brushes. Norman has everything you need to start beekeeping, a worthwhile endeavor.