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Beekeepers buzzing about thriving population

King of bees: beekeeper Randolph Furbert, former president of the Bermuda Beekeepers Association (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Bermuda’s beekeepers are getting back on their feet after the plague that struck their hives in 2008.

The tiny varroa mite preyed on local honey bees eight years ago, causing the number of beehives to fall from 350 to about 125.

But according to the campaign group The Buzz — set up to tackle the dwindling bee population — the message is slowly getting out to the community to create the right environment to help them thrive.

And Randolph Furbert, the longstanding former president of the Bermuda Beekeepers Association, is hopeful that the Bermuda Government’s move to import queen bees will make a difference.

“We had a scientist come down here to look at our bees and he recommended that we import some queen bees that are sensitive to varroa,” Mr Furbert told The Royal Gazette.

“So the Government brought in five that were very expensive, $250 each, and I have one of them. It’s going to take around four or five years to get them around the island to get rid of the other bees we have now, but we’re working on it.”

Mr Furbert, 82, has been keeping the insects for more than 40 years and is regarded by many as the island’s king of bees. He is well known for his appearances at the Agricultural Exhibition.

“I’m trying to get more Bermudians interested,” he said. “There are only about four or five of us that are seriously into studying them. You have to have a passion for beekeeping. Since varroa came there’s been a whole different way of keeping bees in Bermuda. However, it is a worldwide problem.

“I used to have 300 beehives from St George’s to Somerset and at the moment I only have 25.”

Government statistics from last year indicated that the average value of the island’s honey crop was more than $170,000 between 2000 and 2009, but had dropped to $50,000 by 2010. However, the Bermuda Beekeepers Association is slowly seeing a change due to the use of new methods.

President Thomas Sinclair said: “As of January there are approximately 150 hives on the island. This spring we had a pretty good swarming season — this is when the hive gets full so the bees create a new queen. We do make increases by swarms throughout the year and the number would raise another 30 to 40 hives.”

Judy Moyter, chairwoman of The Buzz, said: “We decided to see how we might highlight the issue and help to identify any other threats contributing to the decline.

“While the varroa mite is certainly a big part of the problem, we also understand that the bees are often more susceptible to the mite given that their health is weakened or compromised by other things, such as the ingestion of pesticides.

“There is a family of chemicals and pesticides, known as systemics, that are more heavily implicated in the danger to bees. These pesticides are taken up by the plants and are then present in the pollen and nectar of the flowers and subsequently absorbed by the bees in their foraging.

“We continue to identify and promote healthier ways to live that will also have a positive impact on the environment and, in turn, we hope will allow the bee population to increase to 2009 levels and perhaps even better.

“It can be a challenge to help people see that this is worth the effort and, indeed, future generations are counting on us.”

For Mr Furbert, however, there’s another reason to keep bees.

“They don’t talk back to me,” he said. “I keep bees because they don’t go work late mornings and they don’t call in sick.

“That is why I let go of my other business and work with my passion. Now I have tours with tourists, summer day camps and schools to educate boys and girls about the importance of bees.

“They do a much bigger job than just producing honey for us to eat. They pollinate our vegetables and our fruit so we can get more and better food to eat. As a matter of fact, a third of what we eat on our tables every day is a direct or indirect result of the honey bee. They’re very vital to our survival. No bees, no food.”