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Taking a bee tour

Think safari and your mind may conjure up images of lions and elephants and the great African savannah. But think again. Safari, meaning 'journey' in Swahili, involves not only travel but also adventure, learning and experiencing new, exotic sights and flavours. Such a journey is offered by the UK-based Bees for Development who organize Beekeepers' Safaris to India and Tanzania and, in August 2000, ran their first ten-day safari in Trinidad & Tobago.

This first Caribbean safari was organized to give participants the opportunity to learn more of beekeeping in the Caribbean and also to have the option of attending the Second Caribbean Beekeeping Congress on the Island of Nevis during the previous week (14-18 August 2000). The safari itself then began in the peaceful surroundings of Tobago before moving on to the busier and more cosmopolitan island of Trinidad with guests visiting different beekeeping enterprises each day as well as enjoying more conventional eco-tourism expeditions and hikes. Indigenous stingless bees, (Melipona species), the bees that provided honey for centuries before the introduction of other bees, are still commercially managed in both Trinidad and Tobago and have been the subject of several joint research projects with the University of Utrecht since 1992. Private apiaries of Black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) and Italian bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) were recorded in Trinidad in 1901 and a government apiary has been in existence since 1902. The first apiary registered in Tobago was started in 1954, although sporadic attempts to keep European bees were recorded since the beginning of the century.

Gladstone Solomon checking his bees, Tobago
credit: Pamela Collins

Although still small, the apiaries sector is very active in the islands with 300 registered beekeepers in Trinidad and about 30 in Tobago. Over 100,000 litres of honey, which commands a very good price, is produced each year in Trinidad and Tobago and the value for this product is verified by increasing demand which continues to exceed available supply. This is, in part, due to the significant international respect that Trinidad and Tobago through their successful participation in the prestigious annual National Honey Show in London. Since winning a silver medal with their first entry in 1987, Tobago beekeepers have won 31 awards and their colleagues in Trinidad have won 18.

President of the vibrant Tobago Apicultural Society, Gladstone Solomon explains that not only do Tobago beekeepers keep themselves well informed and well trained in professional techniques, they also enjoy two major natural advantages that contribute to the production of honey of such exceptional quality. Firstly, Tobago has a verdant, rural, landscape, with a remarkable biodiversity of both animal and plant species for such a small island that results from an ecological link with the South American mainland, to which is it was once connected. Tobago also lays claim to the oldest forest reserve in the Western hemisphere: the Main Ridge rainforest has been a protected forest reserve for over two hundred years and primary and secondary forest, savannah, bamboo and wetlands still cover 73% of the island's total land area. The bees fully exploit this rich and varied mixture of nectar sources throughout the year, producing much sought after 'multifloral' honey.

Major pests and diseases of apiaries seem, so far, to have also bypassed Tobago. Trinidad is less than 50km away and yet, Tobago remains free of the Africanized bees, European Foulbrood, sacbrood and Varroa mite that have affected Trinidad and many other Caribbean islands, for some time. Whilst this is an advantage, it is also one of the greatest challenges facing Tobago beekeepers. Stringent laws are in place to prevent the import of honey and other apiaries products into both islands but Tobago beekeepers cannot afford to be complacent about their apparently pest and disease-free situation and ways of putting domestic inter-island quarantine measures in place are being actively pursued.

Bees for Development organize Beekeepers' Safaris as part of their work in supporting beekeepers in developing countries. The safaris have been running for over four years and the exchange of ideas and ongoing contacts between beekeepers from different countries will continue with forthcoming Safaris, which are to take place in Tanzania in November 2000 and to South India in January/February 2001. It is envisaged that further Beekeeping Safaris to Trinidad and Tobago will be also arranged but dates have not yet been decided.

Additional note: Since the writing of this article, New Agriculturist has received news (25/8/00) that Varroa has been positively identified at the apiary of Gladstone Solomon and at the government apiary during visits made by the beekeepers participating in the Beekeepers' Safari in Tobago. "This is a positive benefit of the safari," said Gladstone Solomon, "As I would not have identified varroa for some time." A widespread check is to be carried out to determine the spread.

Article submitted by Pamela Collins, freelance journalist, Trinidad & Tobago

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