If you are not a beekeeper or into the honey business, what you know about bees may be limited to what has been portrayed in movies like ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, ‘Bee Movie’ and ‘Honeyland’. For many Dominicans the first thing that comes to mind when a bee is spotted is that the bee is aggressive, and it will sting; the second thought is usually to kill it or get rid of it somehow.
In actuality, according to Michael Lanns, a hobbyist beekeeper from Morne Prosper, “the bee is so busy doing its work, that it really doesn’t have time to sting you – unless provoked.” The work Lanns refers to has been described as one of the most essential activities occurring in the animal kingdom. By carrying pollen from one flower to another, bees enable not only the production of an abundance of fruits, nuts and seeds but also more variety and better quality, contributing to food security and nutrition, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explained. In Dominica, bees are responsible for pollinating roughly 90 per cent of all crops.
Though there are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, the most popular is the honeybee or the apis mellifera. As the name suggests, honeybees produce and store honey – a thick sweet liquid made from nectars of flowers. Honey is often used as an alternative to sugar to sweeten drinks and food for human consumption. However, honey also has antiseptic and antibacterial properties and has been used in local, traditional medicine to cure several ailments including the common cold and gastrointestinal issues.
Each honeybee hive contains the same three kinds of bees: the queen, worker and drone. The queen bee is the largest and longest-surviving kind of bee. She is the only sexually developed adult female bee of a colony. Drone bees are all male. Their only job is to eat and mate with the queen bee. Worker bees are all female; they hunt for food (nectar and water) to feed the baby bees and the queen, build and repair honeycombs and guard the hive, among many other duties.
Because honeybees are so popular, they have become most people’s expectation of what a bee should look and act like. For instance, many believe all bees are black and yellow striped. However, bees come in a variety of colours. The North American sweat bee Agapostemon splendens, for example, is green and blue. Similarly, the lansiglossum dominicense, a new species found in Dominica in 2015, is a dull metallic green-gold colour.
Additionally, it is widely presumed that all bees live together in hives. But only social bees (like the honeybee) live together in colonies that have at least two adult females, who lay all of the eggs for the group. Typically, hundreds and even 10,000’s of bees can live together in a single hive. On the other hand, solitary bees, as the Edmonton and Area Land Trust notes, include leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and mason bees. These bees live alone and do not swarm. They rarely sting and are not aggressive. Eusocial bees are a mix of both social and solitary.
One of the least known species of bees is the vulture bee. Most bees feed on pollen and nectar and sometimes fruit juice. Vulture bees, however, eat rotting meat as well as flowers. Another interesting one is the sweat bee also known as the alkali bee. Sweat bees are fascinated by the perspiration of humans and other animals and usually come out during hot days when many people are outside. There are an estimated 25 different species of bees in Dominica including honeybees, sweat bees and bumblebees. In 2015, Shelby Kilpatrick, an Entomology Student at Texas A &M University conducted a study and recognised seven new species (which included Lasioglossum (Dialictus) kalinago sp. nov., L. (D.) dominicense sp. nov., L. (D.) and kilpatrickae sp. nov.).
With so many different types of bees doing such important work, beekeepers around the island have worked tirelessly to counter the threats that contribute to decline in bee populations. Some of the threats include poor agricultural practices, excessive use of agricultural chemicals, invasive pests, water pollution and destruction of the flora bees need to survive.
Between 1994 and 2000 approximately 95 per cent of beehives in Dominica were destroyed after an invasion of Varroa Mites; only about fifty beehives survived. Through intervention by the Ministry of Agriculture, that infestation was brought under control and the bee populations increased. In addition to the work spearheaded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Dominica’s beekeepers have received constant support from organizations like GEF-Small Grants and IICA that they have said, has been instrumental to the development of the sub-industry.
“GEF-small grants has been there with us. Some years ago, GEF-small grants invested over $400,000 in the sub-sector and that is a significant boost,” Lennox Fagan shared. Fagan has been a beekeeper for nearly 30 years and directly benefited from the efforts of GEF-Small Grants.
Today, hundreds of hives have been established nationwide and bee numbers are showing promising signs of an increase after a decline following Hurricane Maria in 2017. To preserve and enhance the numbers, increased efforts are needed from all members of society – especially farmers and flower grower groups.
“If there are no bees you will not get the benefit of them,” Fagan reminded farmers, “And what you could have harvested will drop to a minimum. So, if you take care of them [bees] automatically, they will take care of you,” he explained. He also encouraged farmers and homeowners to plant more bee-friendly trees. According to Lanns, teaching farmers, and the average Dominican about the types and functions of bees could go a very long way in promoting sustainability in agriculture. “We can even rent bees to pollinate farms. If we know exactly which bee pollinates the tomato, we can nurture that particular bee and then you know when somebody has a plot of tomato the person can rent that bee from you to put on their farm to pollinate their tomatoes,” Lanns suggested.
Lanns, since his start in 2018, has not harvested a drop of honey – citing that his interest in beekeeping is primarily to ensure the longevity of the species and to teach others of the importance of the insect. “My motive is to just learn and to just produce bees for the environment. The honey will come as time goes by but that is not my primary objective,” he clarified.
Ultimately, Lanns shared, “there are many things we can do in order for us to maintain the biodiversity and prevent the extinction of bees. But it [has to be] a collective effort. Everybody has to come together to see how we can conserve and preserve our food security.”
A version of this article appears in the Chronicle Newspaper on May 28, 2021, Page 9 with the headline: ‘More than Honey Makers’.