Maff spotted the sign, on the outskirts of Bridgetown, Barbados: “Sawh’s Bee Hiving Enterprise – we specialize in bee hive removal. 100% pure Honey. 100% pure Bajan.“
Irresistible. I called the number. After a long, almost too long ring, the phone was answered by a woman’s voice. A kind, busy, slightly singing intonation. I explained that I was a beekeeper from London and that I’d like to buy some genuine Bajan honey. “Certainly”, the lady replied: “where are you staying on the island? I’ll bring some to you.”
“No thanks”, I said. “I’ve got a car, I’d love to come to you.” “Fine”, she responded, we’re just by the Kensington Oval – you can’t miss us”. “Great – and who is your beekeeper?” (laugh at the other end of the phone) “All my sons”. “And what is your name?”, I asked. “It’s Kimini”.
This article from Barbados’ Nation News in 2011 still holds true today. The Sawh family, headed by Latchmi Persaud Sawh, arrived in Barbados from Guyana in February 1963, transplanting their business acumen across the Caribbean Sea. Michael Sawh and his wife, Kimini, set up shop in Westbury Road, St. Michael’s Parish, which has been thriving ever since.
The red, sun-peeled Banks Beer sign-writing, ubiquitous on the island, welcomed us across the threshold and gave way to a darkened, airless interior. A few customers patrolled the porch, a couple more sat at small tables. But this was a busy spot: customers coming in to transact, giving Bajan dollars (fixed at a 2:1 rate against the U.S. dollar) through the metal grille and receiving their goods: a lottery ticket, a single cigarette, two diapers or a fistful of beers . Busy on both sides of the equation, harmonious and, with the exception of the row of slot players facing the walls, entirely purposeful.
I was sure that the good-looking, grey-streaked woman who greeted me on the other side of the metal grille had to be Kimini. And it was. I reannounced myself and Kimini clearly remembered my telephone call a few days earlier. “I’d like to buy some honey.” I said.
“Just a moment, please.” Kimini interjected, as she finished the transaction which she was half-through. Soon there were 3 varieties of Sawh Honey on the counter, each featuring their blue-winged bee symbol: a nut-brown honey in a soy sauce bottle; a mahogany-dark tincture in a standard size cough-medicine bottle and the same dark linctus in a litre bottle.
Emerging from the shady hinterland of the shop came Tulsie Sayersing to take up a beekeeping conversation. Tulsie is the key beekeeper in Sawh Enterprises. And we were lucky to find him there – if not on the bees, he’d be on a construction job, or maybe working in the pawn shop. Perhaps a little unsure of our motives, so far off the tourist track, Tulsie sized me up. But once we got on to beekeeping, we were unstoppable. Like many Bajan beekeepers,Tulsie had worked under Barbados’s iconic beekeeper, Rudi Gibson :”He has a gift, a blessing about bees“, remarked Tulsie. But Tulsie had left nothing to chance in his beekeeping – he has studied the craft in Grenada, St. Lucia and Trinidad.
We quickly traversed universal bee-matters: Tulsie keeps his bees on white-painted Langstroth hives, basking in the Bajan sun. He keeps his hive records in his head. His bees forage on tamarind, sea grapes, berry blossoms and wild flowers.
Tulsie was wary of varroa (“varrona” as it is known locally), but noted that Africanised bees can groom the mite off efficiently (unlike our European bees). Yet his #1 enemy is the wax-moth, which can devastate the wax comb in weak hives, leaving the bees unable to raise their young. And he spoke good sense about beekeeping. Here’s a quick run-through:
Tulsie’s Top Ten Bajan Beekeeping Tips:
- Proper hive management is the key to successful beekeeping. You have to know what to look for and command the techniques necessary to manage a hive well.
- Communicate with your bees. Talk to them as you work the hive. You’ll be surprised how well your bees will respond to you.
- When positioning a beehive, place it slanted into the prevailing wind. This gives heavily-laden forager bees a following wind when they bring their precious cargos home.
- Ensure that breeding lines within an apiary have diversity. Too much interbreeding will weaken the bees genetically.
- Avoid smoking your bees heavily at the hive entrance. When you are inspecting them from the top, the last thing you need is to panic them up from the bottom.
- Don’t cull drone brood (which is favored by the varroa mite as a breeding ground) too aggressively. The worker bees need drones to feel secure in a hive.
- It is best to have both brood and food stores on each frame in the beehive. A 2-inch honey arch with some pollen underneath is ideal. Try to manage bees away from laying frames carpet-fitted with brood from top to bottom.
- When looking to find a virgin Queen, shake the frames vigorously, putting bees into the air. The virgin queen has not yet learnt to fly, so will cling on tenaciously, then resume her scampering gait over the comb. Then you have fewer bees on the frame and a better chance of spotting the virgin queen.
- Never miss an opportunity to remind a farmer about the importance of honeybees to their crops – and remind them to use pesticide sprays responsibly and as little as possible.
- Finally, if you want to buy Sawh honeycomb on the frame, be sure to attend the Farmers’ Market at end February/early March in Queen’s Park, Barbados. It’s the only time Sawh sells its honey in that format. Tulsie is particularly proud of his comb honey, which quickly sells in the throng of some 60,000 local customers.
I’m delighted to have met the Sawh family and their beekeeper, Tulsie. Sarah remarked that the Sawh set-up reminded her of similar trading posts described by the great V.S. Naipaul – a bustling local centre where buyers congregate with sellers. But for me, the Sawh emporium at 4 Westbury Road, St. Michael’s Parish, was the closest thing I have ever seen to a beehive of humanity, a colony of commerce.
Like most beehives, Sawh’s has an undistinguished exterior. But once you step up the porch and into the shop, it is a genuine, harmonious hive of human commerce, a parallel social enterprise to a colony of bees. It has its own whiff of pheromone; its unique crepuscular light, littered with a dim layer of sound: footsteps, electronic bleeps, clinking bottles and voices. And then there is the heat, static, reinforcing the torpor of darkness. Is Sawh’s the archetype for a human beehive?
Well, perhaps not: the sign above the metal grille states: “No abusive language”, seems perhaps more rooted in the verbal world of 21st-century humanity, rather than in the mute touch-talk, common scents and sisterly communion of the bees. So Tulsie and I shook hands, exchanged cards and e-mails – and looked forward to another chance to visit the frontier-less world of beekeepers talking about their bees on our next meeting.
And also consider: the Sawh’s sign promotes their expertise in bee-hive removal from other people’s property. My specialty is the installation of bee hives for chefs and hotels. One takes bees away for a living, the other is busy bringing bees in.
Beekeeping: sometimes I wonder what the bees must make of it all !