By Alphea Saunders, Contributor
This bee-keeper shows the proper way to handle bees. - File
AUDREY AND Mortimer Wilson speak of bees just like mothers speak of infants.
Even if you aren't a bee-keeper, their enthusiasm makes you want to understand their passion for one of the most productive species on earth.
At a time when others complain of lack of opportunity, the Wilsons have marked out a means of survival and well-being for themselves in their nine-year-old business, Wilpar Limited, located in St. Andrew. Even when the hard knocks of the 1990s in the beekeeping industry came, they bounced right back.
Following an attack of the dreaded varroa mite disease that nearly wiped out their colonies, bringing them down from nearly 100 to 12, the enterprising couple had to start almost from scratch again.
"It wreaked havoc in the industry worldwide," Mr. Wilson explained.
The arrival of the varroa mite took local beekeepers by surprise, and many unwittingly spread it through their operations before they knew they had it.
Based on research carried out in the United States, a way has been found to improve honey bee survival and the Wilsons have been experimenting with the latest methods of enabling the bees to build smaller than usual cells to rear their young and store honey.
"We have discovered this cell size solution that we have been using and we have seen very good results," he said. "What we are doing is a non-chemical approach."
The Wilsons didn't stumble onto bee-keeping. Their decision was inspired by her husband's father and his family's bee-keeping background.
Establishing their apiary was also a deliberate strategy to get involved in a business with good long-term prospects.
"We wanted to get into something a bit slower that you could still do as you got older," she said. "Organisations change so rapidly that before you know it you are obsolete. You need to start thinking about your future early."
Explaining the requirements for keeping an apiary, Mr. Wilson says once one is established, checks have to be made to ensure that the queen is always there as she mates in the air and may be preyed on by birds.
"The hive cannot exist without that queen," she said. "Once they realise that there is no queen, they have to make a new queen or they will just dwindle and perhaps join other hives."
The queen lays an average of 1,000 eggs per day and the bees only live for about three weeks, so it is very important to keep the queen alive as long as possible as there would be a very small population if the stock is not being replenished.
"The harmony of the hive is a very interesting thing," Mrs. Wilson said. "All the functions of the hive are divided up amongst the bees and they do their job. Nobody wants to cancel and supercede the queen."
As the bees get older they graduate to different jobs, but continue to keep the hive up and running efficiently.
"Everybody works towards that end and I think that is something that we as humans can appreciate and learn from," Mrs. Wilson said.
After inspection, the apiarist has to keep checking for another two to three weeks just to make sure the laying patterns are intact and that the hives are not infested with ants or other insects.
"One of the interesting things to see is in the morning at first light when the bees are headed out, eager to work," she said. "They get out at five minutes to six to feed and then at 3 o'clock you see them coming in. It is beautiful to see these hundreds of bees."
The bees use the sun, the geographical area and the position of the boxes as a guidance system.
"That is why it is important not to disturb the position of the box once they have established the parameters, and they know exactly where they are going to zone back in," Mr. Wilson elaborates.
Each day, the bees collect pollen and nectar, among other honey-making materials, until the cells are packed and the boxes are full. Then the Wilsons go in and reap the honey.
On average, honey can be reaped up to three times per year, with February to July being the peak period.
"In Kingston, with the right environment, you can constantly reap," Mr. Wilson said. "Other parishes tend to have definite reaping periods."
Jamaica has a great advantage over temperate climate countries, in that it does not have winter so honey can be continuously reaped, Mr. Wilson notes.
Also, Jamaica's honey is unique as the indigenous herbs that the bees draw from and put into their honey gives the fluid a distinct taste, different from honey produced elsewhere in the world.
"Our honey is really fantastic," she says.
Each colony yields approximately nine litres of honey, therefore, up to 40.5 litres (nine gallons) can be achieved per reaping.
"The larger the apiary, the more the possibility of collecting," Mr. Wilson said. "Apiary skill is very important. If the apiarist is not skilled in his techniques, then he won't be able to maximize on the output of the hives."
The Wilsons expressed gratitude for the assistance they got from the Jamaica Business Development Centre (JBDC), which helped them create labels for a variety of bottle sizes and redesigned their original label.
"They really helped us, not only with the labelling, but marketing as well," she said. "It is not easy for a small producer to be exposed to all the different areas that your business really needs especially when you don't have a lot of money."
She adds that Wilpar sells its honey both on a wholesale and retail basis and that they tended to leave the supermarkets to the smaller beekeepers who need the outlet and are unable to access some of the areas that they can. Wilpar sells mainly to hotels and gift shops.
Wilpar honey is being marketed under the brand name 'Lalibela'. She stresses that there is a great market worldwide for honey.
They say flexibility is essential for their survival, and they turned to castor oil production when the varroa mite hit. This side venture has turned out to be a successful one.
"You have to be constantly thinking of how to add to what you do and increase your earnings," Mrs. Wilson said. The castor oil tree is very common in Jamaica and grows wild, an opportunity which they capitalized on.
They now produce 100 per cent virgin castor oil under the brand name EYL.
"It has been an up and downhill [thing]," Mr. Wilson said. "You have to be very resilient. You really can't afford to let the knocks push you down."
A PROPERLY managed apiary with 50 beehives could earn about $250,000 per annum from honey alone, said Reginald Peddy, chief apiculture oficer in the Ministry of Agriculture
Apiaries used for research at Bodles in St. Catherine averaged about 10.5 gallons of honey per hive, he said in an interview last year. But local beekeepers are not averaging more than about 4.5 gallons per hive.
The production of pollen is a high income earner for beekeepers, Mr. Peddy said.
There is also good earning potential from the production of propolis (bee glue), bees wax, queen bees for export and Royal Jelly.
The major honey-producing parishes are Clarendon, St. Thomas, St. Catherine, and St. Mary, with Westmoreland having a "very good" honey production potential, he said. Local honey production is estimated to be approximately 150,000 gallons per annum.
"Bee-keeping cannot be considered a short-term investment because it takes a while for you to begin to profit from it," he said.
And producers are may face a build-up of surplus honey without a good marketing strategy.
Venetia Fearon, a bee farmer residing in Freetown, Clarendon, said new farmers like herself have a difficulty in securing customers, as they have to compete with better established producers.
Fortunately, honey can be stored for a very long period.