Friday, July 25, 2014

Paving the way to natural and economical beekeeping in Jamaica

I originally published this article earlier in week on the Farmer to Farmer blog—“Cultivating Change.” It’s an overview of the top bar hive beekeeping project I’m working with here in Jamaica and why it’s necessary for the beekeeping here (and in many other countries also).

Farmer to Farmer is a project administered by Partners of the Americas in the areas of the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Through the program farmer groups and organizations can solicit the help of American expert on any number of agricultural issues—in my case beekeeping. This is the third summer I have spent supporting this project in Jamaica. Each year I get to do something a little bit different. These experiences have been tremendously satisfying for me, both for the chance to teach and learn more about beekeeping but also to spend some time on this wonderful island.


By Tom Hebert, Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer

A Jamaican couple’s dream of a more sustainable, natural and economical beekeeping using top bar hives has begun to fruit its benefits for themselves and many other beekeepers on their Caribbean island because of Farmer-to-Farmer.
Kwao and Agape Adams had a vision of a more simple and natural way to keep bees in Jamaica upon their return to the island after living in Vermont for five years. Kwao had kept some beehives in the United States in the more common manner of movable-frame Langstroth hives, but they wanted something different for their farm--Yerba Buena Farm located near Robins Bay, St. Mary, on the island’s north coast.

Agape and Kwao Adams, with their oldest son Emmanuel, inspecting a top bar hive on their north coast Jamaican farm.

Their reading and research showed them top bar hives offered the alternative they were looking for—an alternative that could also benefit the other beekeepers in this tropical country.

The Jamaican beekeeping industry has not been sustainable for smaller scale beekeepers, Agape Adams explained. It is a system using a type of hive where most beekeepers cannot afford the equipment to expand, cannot get the wax necessary for foundation sheets, and are unable to buy the other equipment designed for the Langstroth system. They also do not have solutions for dealing with the pest and disease problems that are occurring in these hives because of increasing resistance to the commonly used chemical treatments.

The Adam’s problem was the lack of knowledge and experience with how the top bar hive beekeeping system worked and with ways to keep bees in a more natural and healthier manner. This is where Farmer-to-Farmer’s flex program came into play, sending the first volunteer for this project in July 2012. 

Beekeeper Tom Hebert, originally from Wisconsin and a former Peace Corps Volunteer who has been living in Honduras for more than 20 years, gave them their first introduction to top bar hives. Hebert is now back in Jamaica for his third mission during this month, having also spent the month of July 2013 helping to expand and continue the project.

Tom Hebert inspects a comb from a top bar hive during one of the training sessions.

The activities taught to these Caribbean beekeepers through the Farmer-to-Farmer program have included among other things the construction of top bar hives and their management, improving bee hives through selective queen breeding and requeening, and natural methods of keeping bee colonies healthy. Other activities have been the construction of simple pollen traps adapted to these hives, candle making, and building inexpensive cement molds for making wax foundation. Eight volunteers have come on 11 training missions. 1,440 people have attended the trainings.

Kwao and Agape Adams, who coordinate the project, now have a 60-hive apiary because of Farmer-to-Farmer’s technical help. In addition to benefiting their family it is also a model apiary for training. They frequently have other beekeepers and groups visit their farm, wanting to know how this system functions or to be formally trained with the hives. 

Two small starter hives are the beginning of a new apiary for Kwao Adams on a property he owns in the hills above the ocean on the north coast of Jamaica. They will eventually be moved into a permanent four- or five-foot hives for honey production, taking advantage of the lush vegetation located on much of the island.

In the two years since this ideal of an alternative beekeeping was set in motion, both the Adams and Hebert agree that it is beginning to show benefits and will be successful. The project has now grown to encompass all the bee farming associations located in the island’s 14 parishes.
The technology and information transfer through the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers is giving hope to these Jamaican beekeepers through practical and suitable alternatives, Agape Adams said. There is now a way for new beekeepers to viably begin and have continued success with honey production.

“Like the implementation of any new type of agricultural technology, you won´t see a change overnight,” Hebert noted. “It takes time. You need to reach the beekeepers and show them the benefits of top bar hives and teach them how to use them. You need to have patience.”

Just in the St. Thomas Bee Farmers Association in southeast Jamaica, where Hebert recently held a training workshop, several of the beekeepers said they have now implemented these hives in their bee operations.

“I see a lot of interested bee farmers every single place we go,” said Kwao Adams. “A lot of farmers are interested in top bar hives and would love to have more training and exposure. All of them talk about wanting to get their own top bar hives started.”  

Kwao added that he has also been hearing from those beekeepers who already have implemented top bar hives that they “want to go deeper into them; they want to increase those numbers.”

A healthy hive of bees housed in a simple top bar hive made from wood and burlap bags. Bees are left to build combs in the way they deem necessary, which helps keeps the bees more healthy.

Both Hebert and the Adams agree that the advantages of the hive are the low cost to build and operate them and the ability to manage the bees in a much more natural and healthier manner.

“Top bar hives allow the beekeeper to do a much more natural-type of management,” Hebert commented. “Bees have been around for millions of years, surviving without the help of man. They know what to do.”

“In Langstroth hives the beekeeper is actually forcing the bees to do something that is unnatural to them, forcing them to behave in a way that is convenient for the beekeeper but not for themselves.”

A top bar hive is a movable comb system that consists of one large horizontal box covered with a series of approximately 30 to 35 bars. The bees build and organize their nests naturally, building one comb from each of the bars. The combs can be removed for inspections or harvests.

By comparison, the Langstroth hive is a movable frame system where the hive can be expanded vertically by adding more boxes. Each box usually contains 10 frames which are equipped with a sheet of wax foundation, a cell embossed guide the bees use to draw out their comb in the frame. The system is also designed to use an extractor, a centrifuge which is used to spin the honey from the combs.

A top bar hive incorporated with Langstroth hives in the apiary of a beekeeper from the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica. Through the Farmer to Farmer trainings, more and more Jamaican beekeepers are seeing these hives as a viable alternative or addition to their beekeeping.

Jamaican beekeepers face a certain set of unique problems, Agape Adams pointed out.  In order to protect the island’s bees from the Colony Collapse Disorder that is affecting bees around the world, the Jamaican government has banned imports of all bee products, including honey, wax and queens. 

Although beekeepers appreciate the protection, according to Agape, the ban has made it difficult to access inexpensive and abundant beeswax for making foundation for the frames in the nation’s Langstroth hives.  Top bar hives do not require these sheets.

“In a poor country, beekeeping offers a way for people to add an income stream that can help to support their families,” she said.  “It is difficult, however, when the only option is the Langstroth method, which can be expensive.  When a pound of beeswax costs the daily earnings of someone working a minimum wage, it is not practical.

“(Langstroth hives) are not always practical here because they are net consumers of beeswax while top bar hives are net producers of beeswax,” Agape added.

Kwao Adams mentioned that a beekeeper could probably get more honey with a Langstroth hive but these fall short with their overall production because of the disease or pest problems many of them usually have. A greater percentage of top bar hives produce an excess of honey when compared with the Langstroth.

“I like to keep a couple (Langstroth hives) as a comparison but I wouldn’t go back, it’s much cheaper and I’m satisfied with the honey production (of top bar hives),” he said. 

Kwao mentioned being able to build five top bar hives for what it would cost to buy the wooden ware for one complete Langstroth hive. The costs of Langstroth equipment is prohibitive for many Jamaicans, even those who already have bees and want to increase.

Top bar hives do not require advance carpentry skills to build. Members of the St. Mary Bee Farmers Association discovered this during a Farmer to Farmer workshop on top bar hive construction. Scrap pieces are used to make the floor.

“Top bar hives can easily be built by the beekeepers,” Hebert said. The boxes are simple and don’t require advanced carpentry skills. The variety of materials that can be used to even further reduce costs is incredible—bamboo, grass, banana leaf ribs, crocus/burlap bags, Celotex hardboard and even tin cans.”

Hebert has been using these hives for the past 20 years in Honduras. He said most of his are made using recycled materials because of the need to keep costs low. Frame hives, by comparison, require the use of good wood and precision carpentry since the measurements must be exact to ensure they function properly, according to Hebert.

“Jamaica and Honduras are the same in the sense that many, many people in both countries have serious economic problems but want to find a way to generate extra income,” Hebert said. “These simple hives offer that to them while not requiring the money that is needed to put food on the family’s table or notebooks in their children’s backpacks.”

Agape Adams added that the income generating projects in Jamaica that donate Langstroth hives to people simply are not sustainable. The cost of the equipment prohibits easily expanding the number of hives or managing them as they are designed.

Kwao Adams also mentioned that top bar hives are easier to inspect, the bees stay calmer, there is no heavy lifting, and you don’t have to deal with a lot of extra equipment.

“(Top bar hives) are a lot easier to manage than Langstroth hives but I think they take more attention,” he said. “They (the bees) are more friendly.”

Kwao Adams and two of his sons check on the progress of a recently caught swarm. The inexpensive nature of the top bar hive has allowed Adams to build many in order to take advantage of the abundance of swarms he sees. His apiaries now contain 60 hives.

The management, although simple, is one drawback. These hives need a bit more management and a different type of management than the more well-known movable frame bee hives, which means more training, Kwao said. At present this training is not meeting the demand.

With a steady supply of training resources the Adams believe there could be a shift in beekeeping on the island. Beekeepers could be running their operations a lot cheaper than what they are now and more effectively.

The result of the present Farmer to Farmer training, however, is evident in Rachel Neil, a mother of one and a grandmother of three who has benefited from this project. She has hopes of improving her life through the sales of honey.

Neil now has one top bar hive on her property in the north coast village of Robins Bay, St. Mary. She has been to many of the trainings around the island and is a member of Robins Bay Bee Club, hosted by the Adams farm and supported by Farmer to Farmer volunteers.  Because of the skills training that she has received, Rachel feels confident as she cares for her hive, and has plans to expand her apiary.

Rachel Neil participates in a top bar hive management training held by Hebert in 2013. A bee colony was simulated using photocopies of actual combs, allowing the beekeepers to calmly discuss and learn about different hive management practices.

“This Farmer-to-Farmer program is changing the entire beekeeping industry in Jamaica,” Agape Adams said, “by importing ideas and skills; to make the ideas work. So you have this expansion of people’s minds and expansion of people’s horizons by expanding what is possible.”

Things that were unworkable before with the one option Jamaican had for beekeeping are now workable with these options the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers are presenting. Agape mentioned the only reason her family is managing bees and have hopes and dreams is because of the skills and expertise they are receiving through the Farmer-to-Farmer project.

“I honestly believe that the future of beekeeping in Jamaica will be with the top bar hive,” Kwao Adams said. “It won’t be the only type around but it’s what makes sense.”

Hebert showing the St. Mary Bee Farmers Association members how to build a simple pollen trap that can be used on their top bar hives. Although normally considered feasible only with Langstroth hives, pollen collection is as productive if not better with a top bar hive.


To learn more about top bar hives and economical/sustainable/natural beekeeping, check out Tom Hebert's blog at

To learn more about Yerba Buena Farm check out their website at:

Also check out James Imbrie’s blog. James, an intern this summer at Yerba Buena Farm, has been participating in the recent beekeeping trainings and their preparations.


  1. Greetings
    I was shown this site by my brother who was in the Peacecorp with you! I am a beekeeper in Ms, USa.We use langstroth foundationless. I am very interested in the burlap TBH and what you are doing. Does the rain, moisture and /or light not bother them? How often do you replace it? Do you have SHB issues? I will be reading more here. You can contact us at buttsbees at gee mail dot com. Thanks

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