Friday, August 10, 2012

Top-Bar Beekeeping 101: post assignment thoughts

Excitement as the bees march into the top bar hive
My month of beekeeping in Jamaica is over and I have been back home in Honduras for about a week now. My entire Farmer to Farmer assignment keeps running through my head, however. My thoughts keep going back to the month I spent helping to set up a top bar hive beekeeping project and promoting this simple and economic system with bee farmer associations on the island.

The main interest among most Jamaican beekeepers for top bar hives (tbh) is the increased wax production. Bees wax cannot be imported into Jamaica. The government wants no further bee diseases to enter the country, especially something like colony collapse disorder. Obtaining the necessary wax is difficult for the new beekeepers and those who want to expand their operations. 

The top bar beekeeping system requires very little wax to get the bees started in their boxes but yields much more, since harvesting is done by cutting off the comb, crushing it and straining out the honey. More wax is generated this way than the normal movable frame system, where comb is not destroyed so that it can be returned to the bee hive.

The bigger reason for top bar hives in Jamaica, in my opinion, is probably the low cost of starting this system. There are severe economic problems in Jamaica, just like there are in Honduras where I've lived and kept bees for more than 20 years now. Many people, especially young adults, need some sort of project/job to generate income for themselves and their families. Beekeeping has this potential. Two or three bottles of honey are the equivalent of a day's wage. The small amount of time needed to manage the bees also allows them to have another job at the same time.

Honey for sale in the streets of Jamaica
But the problem is having the money to start beekeeping, especially when everyone really only knows the movable frame system. When you add in the costs of the boxes, frames and wax foundation, the costs are quite elevated and daunting. Add in the price of a honey extractor and things get much worse. Borrowing an extractor is not so easy in Jamaica anymore because so many beekeepers are worried about transferring diseases into their operations. People always have the option of a loan, but interest rates often run 20 percent or more—it makes you think twice about getting one.

The economic problems in Jamaica and the difficulties beekeepers and people in general face are the same that I see in Honduras. It is something I live and deal with every day. Simply buying everything is not an option. You must always consider different ways to do something—using alternative materials and making equipment oneself.

I was helping to set up the top bar hives at Yerba Buena Farm in St. Mary as part of a model apiary that will eventually be used to train beekeepers in the top bar hive system. As part of this, I wanted to incorporate as many options and as much appropriate technology equipment so beekeepers can see that there are different ways to get started in beekeeping. You don't have to spend lots of money and buy everything—much of the equipment can easily be made.

We incorporated four types of hives into the apiary at this organic farm. There is the standard movable-frame Langstroth hive which most beekeepers use. But there are also three types of top bar hives made with different materials: solid wood, a type of hardboard and bamboo. Each one is progressively less expensive.

The bamboo hive, dubbed the "Rasta Hive", is probably my favorite because of its cost, which is very low. Bamboo was something that I always wanted to experiment with but it's not readily available in my part of Honduras. This was my chance. Bamboo is located all over the island and has become too invasive. Projects are actually underway to eliminate bamboo forests and replant with hardwood trees.

Tying the brood comb to a top bar
Although the hive is a bit of work to make, the materials are basically free—the bamboo and either the stems of banana leaves or coconut fronds. Even the cover can be made from bamboo. The technique is not complicated.

Another project we made during my month was a pollen trap that fits on a top bar hive. The problem here was finding the right size material for the entrance screen. You need to import it since beekeepers can't find it in Jamaica. As the bees enter the hive, they pass through a screen which scrapes the pollen balls off their legs. The solution was to use a simple piece of tin with the correct size holes punched or drilled into it, which would remove the pollen pellet.

Other equipment projects included simple veils, gloves, smokers, queen cages and a wax foundation mold.

Offering options also went for how to get bees for your hives. People can buy frame hives and transfer the bees and comb into a tbh but it could cost you as much as two weeks of wages. Package bees aren't available either.

So we hung trap hives and removed wild colonies—free bees. Eventhough it was not the prime swarming season, we did manage to capture one swarm. We suspect, however, that it may have been the colony that decided it didn't like being removed from its termite nest and getting transferred into a tbh. At least it demonstrated that they should work. About 80 percent of the colony transfers were successful, however.

The project has removed about 12 wild colonies so far to begin establishing the apiaries. There are probably at least that many more that can be removed. People were constantly coming forward to say where they have seen colonies. There seems to be a very healthy population of bees in the bush—an indication of the state of bees in general in Jamaica.

Removing a wild bee colony from a termite nest
In the end, the more alternatives you can present to people, the more accessible beekeeping will be to those who could really benefit from it. The project has a very promising beginning.

For a more detailed account of different aspects of this Farmer to Farmer assignment, click on my link at the bottom of this post. I've been posting about my experiences on the Beesource beekeeping forum. Also click on the link for the blogs of Dee and Erin, two university students from the States who have been interning at the farm during the summer and helping with the project.

Tom's Beesource posts: Beekeeping in Jamaica
Dee's blog: Dee Lee's Bees
Erin's Blog: Jamaican Bees!

Tom Hebert, originally from Wisconsin, has been living in Honduras for more than 20 years where he manages 75 top bar hives in addition to teaching English in a bilingual school. This was his first Farmer to Farmer assignment.

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