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Saving our precious bees

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In 2009 a parasite struck Bermuda hives and we may have lost more than half of our bee population. The parasite varroa has stuck bees all over the world in a similar fashion, killing millions.

Added to that, poor farming practices are also negatively impacting the bees. Why should anyone care about a little bug capable of inflicting a nasty sting? The answer is that many of the fruits and vegetables we eat and flowers we admire, depend on bees for pollination to some degree. A bee problem easily translates into a human problem.

The bee population is thought to have improved some since 2009.

Quincy Burgess and his wife Joanne Ball-Burgess are helping things along by creating education initiatives targeting both children and adults. Through camps and workshops, one of which begins next week, they are bringing about more community awareness of bees and encouraging more people to take up beekeeping.

“Bees are in trouble in the world,” said Mr Burgess. “I would say that has partly been brought on by the agricultural approach taken in the United States. For example, they grow 80 percent of the world’s almonds in California. They truck millions of bees all the way from Florida to pollinate the almonds. The bees are trucked all over the United States to pollinate different crops such as corn. This puts a lot of stress on the bees and they don’t do as well.

“The varroa mite has also played a role in bee decline. When a strain from the United States found its way to Bermuda we lost 50 to 60 percent of our bees. The population is thought to have improved now by about 20 percent.”

Mr Burgess shows people how to collect swarms and get them into backyard hives by putting out a special pheromone bait. He also raises bees himself and makes the “nucs” or nucleuses available to the general public. To further educate people he is writing a book about bee plants of Bermuda.

“Beekeeping became a passion when I was at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” said Mr Burgess. “I used to go to the university at 6am every morning to take beekeeping classes. I received a master’s degree in divinity. No, I don’t have a congregation now, but they say the closest person to God is the farmer. Being that close to nature I do find a deeply spiritual connection in beekeeping.”

Back in Bermuda, Mr Burgess also learned a lot from well-known beekeeper Randolph Furbert.

“He taught me how the integration of different bee plants help the honey flow,” said Mr Burgess. “Most of the practical things I have learned from him. He is probably Bermuda’s largest beekeeper with over 100 hives.”

Mr Burgess doesn’t just want to pass on his knowledge to Bermuda, but also to people around the world. He has just returned from a trip to East Africa where he advised people in rural areas about beekeeping.

“In one part of Nairobi, Kenya, I was showing people about keeping bees and how to manage their bee colonies and also about bee plants,” said Mr Burgess. “Most bee trees there are under threat because a major source of income is charcoal, which comes from trees. In rural parts of Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and other places, people are cutting down trees to make money. All forms of environmental diversity are under threat.”

But he said bees can be a great way to mitigate poverty. People can sell racks of bees to other people to propagate bees, or they can sell the honey or bee pollen.

“You can also use them to sell the education aspect,” said Mr Burgess. “They help people learn to appreciate the environment. It increases the diversity of the environment. Once you keep bees you appreciate the trees. A large part of the deforestation in East Africa has caused the wildlife to flee. Beekeeping isn’t just about bees and honey. It is about the pollination of food groups and the environment and speaks to us as individuals.”

Bermuda has the European honeybee that was introduced in the 1600s. In Africa they have the African honeybee, which Mr Burgess said formed smaller colonies, was more likely to swarm, and was much more aggressive.

“In rural situations hives are made out of any material that can be found,” said Mr Burgess. “They might use grass, for example. The typical way they harvest honey is they burn the hive down, kill the bees and take the honey. This is very unsustainable, so I was trying to encourage people to manage the hive.”

He said the people he was working with were shocked when he started working directly with bees as they were very afraid of them.

“If you use a lot of smoke and understand the habits of bees you can learn to work with the bees,” said Mr Burgess. “Smoke causes the bees to become lethargic and they are less likely to sting.”

If Mr Burgess’ beekeeping summer camp sounds a little unusual, that’s because it is. It was probably the first summer camp of its kind to be offered in Bermuda. Mr Burgess said it went really well this summer.

“We had a mixture of children, some who were somewhat enthusiastic and some were forced to come,” said Mr Burgess. “By the end of the camp everyone learned something new. One boy was highly allergic to bees. He came with an EpiPen (an epinephrine auto-injector used to counter an allergy attack). His parents wanted him to experience bees. I am not out to get people stung.”

Mr Burgess said during the entire camp there were only five incidents of bee stings, and three of the stings were to himself.

“The boy with the allergy did not get stung,” said Mr Burgess. “He handled bees, and at one point he was in the midst of 7,000 bees. That was part of the course to teach people that bees don’t sting unless they feel threatened. That is why in 1986 Mr Furbert famously made himself a beard of bees, to show the general public that bees don’t sting unless threatened.”

And just how do you know when a bee is feeling offended? Mr Burgess said things like kicking a hive or throwing rocks at it will put the bees on their guard.

“They go on defence mode and they start to sting,” said Mr Burgess. “Next week I am doing another course in beekeeping for home gardening. This is the second time we have offered it. The first time was with the Department of Community and Cultural affairs. They were very supportive. Since that course, we have had three people start up their own hives in their back yard. The course will run as often as people demand it. I do it on a weekly basis, from 6pm to 8pm every evening. We look at how to collect swarms, manage bees, raise queens and plant bee plants. We look at the environmental aspects of beekeeping.”

Mr Burgess is president of the Bermuda Beekeepers Association. The group currently has around 25 members. There are about 20 people in Bermuda who keep bees. Their Facebook page has 160 members and includes people from overseas.

Mr Burgess has 12 bee hives, and he said location is key. It is ideal to have those dreaded nuisance trees Mexican pepper and fiddlewood nearby and a source of water for the bees

. You probably also want to be 50 to 100 feet away from your neighbours.

“It is not expensive necessarily,” he said. “Everyone has different reasons why they beekeep. Some people do it for honey. Some people do it for pollen. Some people do it to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. This year, after two years of keeping bees, was the first year I have harvested the honey. So far I have collected maybe about 20 litres.

“I eat it raw. I am most intrigued by harvesting different types of honey. When the pittosporum was flowering bees were collecting it and a lot of nectar and honey was from there. As a result the honey has a completely different taste. It is light in colour and has a citrusy, floral taste. Last week, we harvested honey where the bees had worked on fiddlewood, [which produced] more of a darker honey.”

Mr Burgess uses a removable frame system for the honey. They hang vertically in a “super”, a kind of box, and contain the comb which the bees use to store eggs, nectar and honey. A wax cap forms over the honey comb while it is in the hive. To collect the honey, Mr Burgess removes the wax and drains the honey out, passing it through a strainer and then into a collection bottle.

Mr Burgess’ course is $40. For more information e-mail Quincyobrianburgess[AT]gmail.com or telephone 537-7244.

Did you know...n The queen bee is the most important bee in the hive. She lays all the eggs.

n All the worker bees are daughters and the drones are sons.

n The daughter bees do all the work including cleaning the hive, caring for the baby bees, and gathering nectar and pollen. The drone’s purpose is to go out into the world, eat and mate with a queen bee.

n Once a drone mates with the queen he dies.

n A queen will lay up to 2,000 eggs in one day and millions in her three to five-year lifetime.

n If there is more than one queen they will sometimes fight to the death for control of the hive.

n Queen bees mate in special drone bee congregations, basically frat parties for male bees.

n Nectar is a sweet watery substance that the bees gather. After they process the nectar in their stomach they regurgitate it into the honeycomb cells. Then they fan with their wings to remove excess moisture. The final result is honey.

Photo by Mark Tatem Quincy Burgess points out the Queen bee.
Photo by Mark Tatem Quincy Burgess with a frame containing the honey comb.
Photo by Mark Tatem Quincy Burgess with his sons Zahari, 4, and Yeshai, 5

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Published August 05, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 05, 2011 at 10:17 am)

Saving our precious bees

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