Thursday, December 28, 2017

Puerto Rico's Bees

The island of Puerto Rico has a unique and extremely valuable population of honey bees that is capable of living with the parasitic Varroa mites. An article in Newsweek,, describes Puerto Rico’s bees and their severe destruction as a result of the 2017 Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico’s bees are Africanized Honey Bees which, in the Americas, have a reputation for being excessively defensive. Puerto Rico’s AHBs are by contrast relatively gentle in nature. Africanized Honey Bees occurred as a result of African honey bees being brought to Brazil in an effort to improve the genetics of Brazil’s bees. Several colonies of African bees escaped in 1956, and they hybridized with the more-gentle bees of the Americas. The hybrid bees are more defensive than regular honey bees, which are the same species. The author calls Africanized Honey Bees “killer bees,” but beekeepers rarely use this term because honey bees typically only sting to defend their hive and don’t attack people. Puerto Rico’s Africanized Honey Bees tend to show aggression toward Varroa mites while not being excessively defensive.

The Newsweek article explains that Africanized Honey Bees crossed the Caribbean in 1994, likely by boat, and established colonies in Puerto Rico. These became gentle bees, not expressing excessive defensiveness to humans. A second important trait of these new bees is of most importance to beekeepers: They are highly resistant to Varroa mites. How the changes in behavior happened is unknown. Genetic mutations may have occurred, or beekeepers on the populous island may have selected for these desirable bees. Anyway, the bees were struck a terrible blow, along with the human population, by Hurricane Maria that killed 80 to 90 percent of the bee colonies and decimated their floral forage. Puerto Rican beekeepers do not want to import new colonies of bees; they would rather expand their gentle, locally adapted bee colonies. However, the fate of these bees is uncertain. Today’s photo: bees remove Varroa mites by uncapping and aborting mite-infected pupae.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Pax Vobiscum

Wubishet Adugna hosted me in his home country of Ethiopia when I travelled to Africa as a USAID-funded volunteer, charged with teaching modern beekeeping techniques. Together, we travelled extensively through the Ethiopian highlands visiting beekeepers, farmers who tend honey bees in apiaries and tree tops sites. The farmers manage bees and tend crops, gardens, and livestock. When I taught beekeeping classes in Wubishet’s training facility at Bonga, Ethiopia, I spoke in English, and Wubishet translated my words into Amharic. Travelling together, we had the opportunity to discuss beekeeping traditions in detail. I am sure that we each learned from each other. I certainly learned much about honey bees and beekeeping from Wubishet. In part, I learned that much of the western literature on beekeeping in the tropics did not accurately describe beekeeping in Ethiopia’s diverse semi-tropical geography. Together, Wubishet and I shared our understanding of the art and science of beekeeping. The combination of these traditions is to me the joy of beekeeping. In our classes, we demonstrated how to manage honey bees in modern Zander bee hives, harvest honey and beeswax, and produce candles, cosmetic products, and mead. Ethiopia’s traditional beverage is tej, a most-enjoyable mead wine.

It was my great honor to sponsor Wubishet when he travelled to the United States and successfully completed the tests to become an Eastern Apicultural Society Certified Master Beekeeper at the 2017 EAS conference at the University of Delaware. Wubishet is the first EAS Master Beekeeper from the African continent. Wubishet teaches the art and science of beekeeping to farmers as an important part of Ethiopia’s mixed agriculture. My son, Peace Bee Farm beekeeper, Tod Underhill, had the opportunity to work with Wubishet on separate occasions. Here, you can see Wubishet and Tod enjoying a liter of tej in Addis Ababa. I encountered Christians, Muslims, and Naturalistic Believers living in harmony in Ethiopia. For these people and others, the Underhills of Peace Bee Farm extend our wish that peace be with you.