On a previous visit to Barbados, I had met Ben The Bajan Beekeeper. Following my blog post, I received an invitation from one of Ben’s fellow beekeepers, Bret Tujela, to visit his Bajan Bees when I was next on the island.
Bret responded enthusiastically when I let him know that the entire Apis beekeeping family would be holidaying in Barbados. He was keen for us to see his bees as soon as we got off the plane. That was before we had hired a car, so we postponed the invitation. That was to prove fateful.
Things got complicated. Bret was moving his lumber (timber merchant) business the next weekend. Even to my holiday-on-the-beach mindset, moving a timber yard over a weekend seemed like quite a tall order.
Over the ensuing days of early morning calls to Bret’s mobile, it became clear that the ramifications of the move had been huge. Carving out a couple of hours to visit beehives was going to be a major problem. So I proposed a meeting at our holiday location, which happened to be just a step away from Bret’s home.
After dusk, Bret arrived from another hectic day in the office and we sat down with a Banks beer to talk about bees and honey on the balcony of our apartment in St Lawrence Gap, as the waves crashed against the sea wall.
Bret had originally come to Barbados as a result of his father’s work for the U.S. State Department. In his college years he met and fell in love with Sonia, who was a native Barbadian from the long-established Seale family. With their college destinations (Sonia to Canada and Bret to California), it took a few years before they married in 1983 and then had two daughters.
Settling in Barbados after a spell bolstering the U.S. security operations in Grenada, Bret was invited to run the RL Seale canning operations on the island. Bret’s ambitions led him to leave after 8 years to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations by starting Tujela Lumber, servicing the island’s building trade.
His introduction to beekeeping was when a swarm of bees (or “beehive”, as it is called in Barbados) flew into an electrical box at his yard. Daunted by the proposed cost of the removal of the swarm, Bret decided to do some research and get to grips with it himself. So he got hold of a bee-suit and got on with the job of collecting the swarm. A small step from solving a problem at work to becoming a beekeeper. Fascinated by his new hobby, he continued to learn about bees and beekeeping, even using joinery skills to construct Langstroth beehives from pallets at his timber-yard.
Bret also approached local farmers in the hope that they would be prepared to pay for the increase in yields of fruit and vegetables which efficient pollination would bring. Sadly, the Bajan beekeeping business was not sufficiently widespread to make hive manufacturing viable – and nor did the farmers want to pay a modest price for the huge benefits of efficient honeybee pollination. The local Daily Nation newspaper took up Bret’s story last year. So Bret’s beekeeping has remained a hobby – like his piloting of light aircraft.
Unlike UK beekeepers, Bajan beekeepers cite the wax moth, not varroa, as their most destructive pest. To be precise, Bret suspects that varroa is weakening the bees’ immune systems to the extent that they are vulnerable to pests and pathogens which they would normally fight off. The long periods of 28-30C temperatures are a factor in boosting the wax-moths’ fertility. And the fact that varroa mite pierces the bees’ exoskelton and feeds into its haemoglymph, making a bridge for infection to be transmitted straight into the bee from the outside, supports this theory. In the case of wax moth, the bees do not have the numbers or the energy to extract the white larval grubs from the comb, as they chomp their way though the bees’ home. This soon destroys a weak hive – and when the beekeeper opens the hive, he sees the symptom – a writhing mass of wax-moth larvae trailing their silken threads through the ravaged comb – rather than the cause, which may well be the tiny varroa mite. Even in weak hives in the UK, I only find wax-moth larvae in stored boxes of drawn super comb (unless I treat with sulphur, freezing or acetic acid) or above the crownboard (if I have left traces of wax there). As an island beekeeper in the northern hemisphere, I’m grateful for small mercies.
Bret says that his bees are testy, as a result of the fiery character of the African bee, interbred with Italian and Spanish bloodlines, yielding a “Creole bee” of very defensive temperament. He tells tales of aspiring Bajan beekeepers who have received a rousing reception from his creole bees and he pays particular attention to protecting his feet when he gets up close with them. Bret also advises using smoke – and plenty of it, when opening up his solid-floor Langstroth hives. He wants to confuse and subdue his bees by smothering their alarm pheromone with thick smoke and boosting their urge to fill up with honey, in case of forest fire. Bret also says that it takes two, possibly three people to inspect each hive thoroughly.
It is a wonder that you could endure such GBBH (Grievous Bee Bodily Harm) for a return of 15lbs annually from each of Bret’s 40-50 hives on the island , even though his honey is impressively vernacular – brimming with lush tropical flavours. Bret’s success as a beekeeper is down to a steely determination to get the job done.
With commitment like that and a ready smile to smooth over life’s challenges, I suspect that Tujela Lumber will prosper in its new location under Bret’s no-nonsense management.