‘Support your local beekeeper': Caribbean concerns on World Bee Day

Bees from one of the 60 colonies at the Carmel Valley Estate in northwest Trinidad. Photo by Monique Johnson, used with permission.

On May 20, the world marks the fourth annual World Bee Day via a virtual event hosted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, guided by the theme “Bee engaged—Build Back Better for Bees.”

Bees play an important role in pollination, a process that is critical to the survival of ecosystems, biodiversity, food security and sustainability, and they have been under threat at rates 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal because of habitat loss and other human impacts, including the climate crisis. Unsustainable agricultural approaches like monoculture and the damaging effects of pesticides have greatly harmed the world's bee population.

This year's event aims to achieve global awareness of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened food insecurity, while advocating for ways in which to regenerate the environment and protect these vital pollinators.

Across the Caribbean, social media users did their part to raise awareness, sharing via WhatsApp and other networking channels videos about the occasion, some of which were aimed at teaching children about the importance of bees. St. Lucia held a World Bee Day panel discussion that chronicled the progress being made in the island's apiculture industry.

In Jamaica, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focused on the biodiverse and ecologically sensitive area of Cockpit Country, where the work of beekeepers there is testament to the fact that respect for nature can go hand in hand with development—it is, after all, the only sustainable approach.

Apart from its environmental importance, Cockpit Country is also hugely relevant to Jamaica historically. Its rugged limestone landscape, was where the Maroons hid after escaping from slavery under British rule. The area, however, continues to be threatened by unsustainable practices, largely led, according to the UNDP, “by small-scale farmers cutting trees to make yam sticks and charcoal.” Its report continued:

Sustainable livelihood alternatives like beekeeping deploy nature’s biodiversity warriors and pollinators to support income generating opportunities that are kind to the environment.

A solitary bee draws nectar from what is locally known as ‘rabbit grass,’ at the Carmel Valley Estate. Photo by Monique Johnson, used with permission.

Beekeeper Leif Johnson and his sister Monique, who operate the family-owned Carmel Valley Estate in northwest Trinidad, agree. For bee populations to survive and thrive the way they need to, they say, support is critical.

In a telephone interview, Leif noted that “wanton deforestation” is one of the biggest threats, and though, he says, the country's Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries is excellent, it is “severely understaffed.” Bees and other pollinators face habit loss as a result of land clearing for housing and farming. In the hilly farming community of Paramin, for instance, he says that land is being cleared by the acre, but farmers are not replanting the depleted forest areas at the same rate.

Meanwhile, in farming communities on the country's east coast, Leif notes that pesticide poisoning is a huge challenge. Many farmers’ go-to insecticide “knocks down everything,” including indigenous pollinators. Trinidad and Tobago has as many as 50 species of stingless bees that fall into this category.

Other challenges to the local bee population include the intermittent spraying of communities by the Insect Vector Control division of the Ministry of Health, in an effort to curb the presence of mosquitoes. Beekeepers nationwide have been asking the division to communicate more effectively about their spraying schedule in order for them to be able to move their bees to a safe area. Although the ministry's website says its approach involves a “safe, effective and economical integration of all appropriate and sustainable vector control measures,” Leif says the chemicals they use kill bees on contact.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions have made protecting bees even more difficult for Trinidad and Tobago's 300-plus registered beekeepers and over 7,000 bee colonies. The country is currently under a state of emergency, with a curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Because bees only return to their hives in the evening, this is problematic for beekeepers who have found it difficult to get curfew exemptions should they need to move their bees in the event of a scheduled spraying. In addition, most beekeeping operations are not overt. Bee rearing tends to take place in forested areas, many of which may border farms that are using chemicals.

Beekeepers at Trinidad's Carmel Valley Estate. Photo by Monique Johnson, used with permission.

There is hope, however. The current minister of agriculture, Clarence Rambharat, has shown an “active interest” in the beekeeping community and understands the importance of keeping the bee population healthy. Trinidad and Tobago has four different beekeeping organisations, spread out geographically, that have been advocating for legislation against the use of pesticides. “Many of the chemicals used here and marketed as ‘safe,’ Leif says, “like neonicotinoids, are toxic to bees—and they have been banned in European Union countries.” In the absence of such legislation, however, the onus is on consumers to educate themselves and make informed choices.

Carmel Valley Estate is home to 60 bee colonies, which are the focus of its operations. Any crops the Johnson family grows, such as cocoa, are cultivated without the use of toxic chemicals, but the effects of the climate crisis are still having an impact. Trinidad and Tobago is just emerging from an unusually rainy dry season, which Leif says has adversely affected output. “Rain washes away the nectar in the flowers and bees can't fly when their wings are wet,” he explains, “so we're not even at 25 per cent of what we normally produce. The season ends in June, and since most other honey producers are experiencing similar shortfalls, the price of honey increases, placing the product out of reach for the average consumer.”

To do its part in increasing the bee population, the Tobago Apicultural Society has offered to sell 150 European queen bees at 100 Trinidad and Tobago dollars each (approximately 15 United States dollars) to interested beekeepers. While the organisation functions as the main networking group for beekeepers on the island, for a small annual fee anyone interested in learning about bees can become a member.

Leif says, however, that the average homeowner can begin cultivating small habits with big payoffs for bees. “Find alternatives to insecticides,” he says, “or choose safer ones, like bioneem.” Permaculture practices are a good starting point. Strive for biodiversity by planting an array of flowering plants and shrubs, as well as fruit trees and vegetables. “Oranges, mangoes, avocados, watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes and pumpkins are all wonderful for honey bees,” Leif says, “and you get a much higher quality yield with bee pollination.”

And if you really want to help the bees, adds Monique, “support your local beekeeper! [They are] the real stewards and the ones who are taking the time and have the expertise to raise bee populations. Get to know them, reach out, find out what their struggles are and how the community can support them.”

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