Saturday, September 19, 2015

Musings about Beekeeping, Bee Art, and Jicaro Trees

I never want to buy a t-shirt or other factory-made trinket as a souvenir when I travel. I want something a bit different, preferably made by a local artisan with local materials. These engraved “calabashes” were what I found during my last Farmer to Farmer mission to Jamaica—and the local artisan customized some for me with bees.

A local Jamaican artisan with his engraved calabashes, with fish, flowers, designs and, in my case, bees.

I was based out of a small fishing village on the north coast of Jamaica during my time there as a volunteer with this Partners of the Americas training program. This was in July 2014, my third trip to the island. Tourism is a major income source for the island but Strawberry Fields was slightly off the main tourism track. It’s a little corner of Jamaica that the main highway along the north coast bypasses.

The village has a lot of the charms of the real Jamaica. But it still had its local artisans catering to the occasional tourist. They make jewelry out of coral or coconut shells or carve drift wood into different figures. The boys at the farm where I stayed learned to weave baskets from vines.

I first saw these bowls at the little “restaurant” on the corner above the farm. I knew right away that I needed to buy one. I chose the calabash with the yellow fin tuna as my first, appropriate since we were right on the ocean. 

But in talking with this local artisan, I found out he would carve whatever I wanted onto the bowl, including bees (and a little message for my wife!). This made it even better. I ended up bringing four different ones home.

The bees are a bit “rustic” but that’s okay with me. It’s the artist’s vision of a bee. It’s one of the charms of these calabashes. 

Lots of the trees in Jamaica are also found in Central America, and this was not an exception with the one from which the calabashes grow. They are actually very common in the area where I live in Honduras, preferring the normally hot, dry climate of the valleys here. If there is a tree emblematic of my town, it would be this, which Hondurans call jícaro or morro (Crescentia alata).

There are two types of jícaros en Honduras—one has large fruits which are used to make a traditional bowl or guacal. The other variety has smaller fruits that are turned into cups. The fruit has a very hard outer shell, almost like wood which makes it appropriate for this. The people here in Honduras will cut them open, clean out the seeds and then scrape or sand them to a finish. 

It is very common to see these bowls and cups used in the “atoleras.” These are small roadside stands that sell a traditional Honduran corn porridge. It comes in both a sweet and sour variety. Using “guacales” is the traditional way to eat your atol.

An “atolera” along the highway to my town and its open-air kitchen. This corn porridge is eaten in the traditional “guacales” made from the fruits of the jícaro tree.

It is rather appropriate that the calabashes ended up as one of my souvenirs since the tree actually plays a part in my Honduran beekeeping—both as a nectar and pollen source for bees but also as a favored tree for capturing swarms.

As far as trees go, the jicaro is a bit different from the norm. It doesn’t have a nice tree shape. Normally it is rather twisted with the branches crossing back and forth. The leaves seem to come straight out of the branches in small groups, covering it from the beginning to the end. The flowers and fruits often grow straight out of the branches and even the main trunk.

The tree has a very strong smell when blooming. There is a hint of a grape or raisin smell to it. Most people simply say it stinks. My fifth-grade students wrinkled their nose when I asked them one day if they liked the smell. This distinct odor permeates the area around the tree. I actually like the smell, but I may be biased since it means nectar for the bees.

This is one of those trees from which I never see honey. It usually blooms right before the rains begin in June, marking the end of the honey season. If the bees make anything from it, the honey stays with them for the dearth period. One lady from the hot, dry southern part of Honduras, where the trees are even more common, said it tends to have a dark color.

The bees absolutely love these big fleshy flowers. The whole tree often sounds like it is alive with the buzzing of all the bees that usually come to work the flowers. This happens early in the morning and then again late in the late afternoon. There is very little activity during the day. The flowers seem to be so appetizing to the bees that you can also find them on the ones that have fallen to the ground.

Looking for a bit of sweetness—an Africanized honeybee and a native stingless bee on jícaro flowers. Even though the rain had knocked the majority of the mature flowers to the ground, bees still covered them, looking for something to forage.

The ground littered with jícaro flowers. There were as many bees visiting the flowers on the ground as there were with the flowers in the tree. The flowers are attractive to both Africanized honey bees and native stingless bees.

Jícaros are also a preferred place to hang trap hives in valley. I have really good success capturing swarms in them. There are certain trees that always seem to work well for hanging swarm traps. A bonus is that jícaros are often easy to climb—something necessary for a big guy like myself (as boys, my brothers were the tree climbers. Not me. Frustrating when they would taunt me from up above.) The abundance of criss-crossing branches makes this easy.

There is also an occasional swarm that I get to shake out of a jícaro.

A swarm in the jícaro tree of a local dairy farmer—this was an easy one to get down. He had an ox cart nearby which we put under the tree so I had something to stand on. No climbing this tree. I shook the bees into a cardboard box and they all marched/flew into it.

A trap hive hanging high up in a jícaro tree. Usually I hang them a bit lower but since there were cows in this pasture I decided to put it up a bit higher to avoid possible problems when a swarm arrived.

Jícaros are usually left in the pastures while other trees are eliminated. They provide some shade for the cattle but the cows also will eat the innards of the fruits when broken open. 

People also eat the little heart-shaped brown seeds, sometimes right as they are after washing and drying them. They are also the key ingredient for horchata, a traditional Honduran beverage. Water is added to ground morro seeds, rice and cinnamon. The liquid is strained out, sweetened and then further flavored with a bit of lemon rind.  You can add cacao and milk to make it a bit more special.

Occasionally my wife will make a type of trail mix, toasting morro seeds, squash seeds, grated coconut and a local version of almonds. It’s topped off with some raisins.

Morro seeds in a small bowl made from the same fruit. A ring is made from banana leaves so it doesn’t tip when set down. The seeds can be munched on raw after drying them or used as the key ingredient in horchata, a traditional Honduran beverage that is also made with rice and cinnamon.

Morro seeds in a small Honduran supermarket.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Even More Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees

A beekeeper needs to learn certain tricks of the trade to work with Africanized bees. Their defensiveness can make them difficult. It’s taken me a good number of years to sort of figure them out (and there is always something new to learn when bees are involved!).

In general, there really is not much difference between an Africanized honey bee and a European honey bee. Both raise brood in the same way. They collect nectar and pollen in the same way. They produce wax and build their combs in the same way. The difference is that one is normally more ornery than the other. And this forces the beekeeper to change tactics to be able to manage them.

This is the third installment in my trilogy about beekeeping with Africanized bees. It’s a continuation on my two previous posts, “Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees” and More Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees.” I don’t consider myself to be an expert on Africanized bees (much less on beekeeping in general). Over the years, as I mentioned, I’ve learned a thing or two in order to manage and take advantage of the bees in Honduras while taking into consideration my own personal circumstances that affect my beekeeping.  

Honey Production 

I don’t like to give exact numbers for the amount of honey a hive of Africanized bees can make. I don’t do intensive beekeeping—my time doesn’t permit it because of my teaching job. The bees give me what they want and I’m grateful for it. There are also a lot of other circumstances that affect the amount of honey produced, such as the nectar sources, climate, and management styles.

A strong colony, however, can easily fill their box with brood and honey. My top bar hives are generally about four feet long—between 30 and 35 top bars. The coffee zone in the mountains is normally the most productive honey area. The bees will fill their boxes from one end to the other and at least half of it can be honey. My top bar hives are 12 inches deep which makes one complete comb of honey to be the equivalent one a deep frame. It is not uncommon for the hive to yield a five-gallon bucket of honeycomb—50 to 60 pounds if filled completely.

Africanized bees can produce good amounts of honey and offer a person a nice secondary (or even primary) income if managed correctly. The taste of the honey is no different from that produced by European bees. Like all honey, the taste depends on the nectar source.

Equipment for Africanized beekeeping

Veil and gloves are always necessary. It is just about impossible to work without gloves--even the small hives. They may not get into a full uproar but I am almost assured of at least getting several stings on the hands. (I can handle them but I don’t like them—avoid if possible.)

Sometimes I can get by without the full suit (just two heavy shirts) if it is light intervention, like just moving trap hives or even harvesting only two or three hives (depending on the apiary) A beekeeper gets to know his or her hives and what to expect in terms of temperament. 

Any major intervention, such as harvesting a complete apiary, requires the full battle gear. This means an extra heavy shirt under the suit. A zip on veil is much better than a tie-on veil to prevent bees from crawling under the elastic. Boots need to go up past the ankles for better protection there. I also wrap some elastic bands around the bottom of the suit’s pants legs to seal them off from any crawlers. 

Armored plated and ready to do battle with the bees. I need to be suited up really well when the bee work involves major intervention into the hives, such as harvesting.

I mentioned in one of the previous posts about the thick gloves I use. I like using the insulated leather gloves designed for winter. The extra padding keeps my hands from getting those “half stings” that sometimes pass through leather. Other times I will use cloth garden gloves—but three pairs. I like them because they are easy to wash and don’t harden like the leather gloves do over time. In both cases, my wife sews a sleeve on them. I have also seen that it’s common for people to use thick rubber gloves.

Finally I’ll put a small towel over my head that drapes down the back of my neck—to avoid stings through the veil there. It stays on with my sweat band. The wind and normal movement help to plaster the veil against my neck, giving the bees the opportunity to sting me there.

I get hot dressed like this. I keep lots of water on hand. Everything is done in slow motion. Breaks are frequent, especially during the hot, dry season in the valley. In the end, you just getting used to working when dressed in this manner.

During any major intervention into the hives I also break out the “beast,” my big oversized smoker that requires two hands to operate. These big smokers are normal for working Africanized bees. You usually need lots of smoke. This one not only holds a good amount of fuel (wood shavings from the neighborhood carpentry shop), but it also can pump out nice clouds of smoke--literally bathing the hive in a cloud of it if I want or bathing myself if I need some relief from the bees. 

The normal recommendation is that you don’t work by yourself with Africanized bees. Major intervention means that one person is always on hand to pump smoke.

A friend holding the “beast.” These big smokers require two hands to operate it but are common when Africanized bees are involved. Lots of smoke is necessary. Greg’s first beekeeping experience was also with Africanized bees while he was in Honduras working at the school with me. He got stung good by this activity and now keeps bee hives back in Michigan.

Top Bar Hives vs. Langstroth Hives

I’ve used both types of boxes for Africanized bees. Presently all of my colonies are in top bar hives. In the beginning of my own beekeeping, I had just about half of my hives in Langstroth boxes. The melon grower I worked with for a while also had all the bees in Langstroth boxes.

The Langstroth box wins for honey production. It is designed to optimize the amount of honey a beekeeper obtains. But when it comes to managing a defensive hive, it loses. When the hive is opened, ten frames of bees are exposed. When the top box is removed to check the situation down below, the hive is opened up even more. It makes keeping the bees under control much more difficult.

The top bar hive is much more suitable for dealing with defensive bees. The Africanized bee can still get out of hand in a top bar hive, but its design definitely helps to manage their behavior. You actually only need to keep a space of two bars opened when working and checking the combs. The combs and bars just get shuffled backwards as you go through the box. There should only be this small space and the entrance to smoke. 

Also, when you begin checking one end of the hive, many of the bees tend to run towards the opposite side instead of flying out. This means that I sometimes do honey harvest in two parts. I will go into the back ends the first time around, letting the bees group at the opposite end. I will then come back the next weekend and do the front end. Less disturbance.

Top bar hives are a closed system that helps the beekeeper control the defensive Africanized bees. Only a space of two or three bars is needed to work the hive, reducing the area from where bees can leave and the space that needs smoke. The bees generally move to the other end of the box that remains closed.


Africanized bees do like to swarm. I need to make sure the bees always have room to work in order to minimize the chance they will swarm and affect the honey production. Ideally I need to be feeding empty bars into the outer sections of the brood area and in the honey area of my top bar hives. 

Swarms are common and an easy way to get new hives. In fact, it’s my preferred way of increasing my bees. I usually use bait boxes or swarm traps--small boxes that I hang in the trees for the bees to start their new colony. For each swarm trap I hang, I am almost assured to get one swarm. While some boxes are never filled, others can catch two or even three swarms during the season. If the bees enter my box on their own, they stay.

It is much more difficult to keep that swarm that I physically dump into the box when I find it hanging on tree limb. It is easy enough to get them to initially enter the box but many times they will not stay, even if I give them a couple combs with brood. The next day they leave. You can’t force them to stay.
This is why I prefer trap hives. It works much better if they come and enter on their own when looking for a new nesting site.

I could split the hive also, making nucleus colonies. This implies getting right into the middle of the brood area, which Africanized bees especially do no like. It also means that I probably want to find the queen. Africanized queens like to move fast and it can be difficult to have the patience to find her when bees are stinging you at the same time.

My wife with a big swarm of Africanized bees. Swarms are gentle and normally don’t sting. It’s just them with nothing to protect—no brood, no honey, no comb. I will put on a  veil and gloves, however, when shaking them into a box—to avoid getting stung from squashing a bee.

Africanized bee swarms behave similarly to those of the European honey bee. They are not defensive, basically because they have nothing to defend—no brood, no comb, and no honey. Normally I would hang a swarm trap in the mango tree that I had right behind my former house—maybe 25 feet from the back door. Several times I was lying in the hammock taking it easy when I heard the swarm arriving. Wearing just shorts and flip flops I would go outside to watch them enter the box, basically getting right in the middle of them. Bees would be all around me but no stings (but I wasn’t swatting at them like a crazy person either). They were just interested in entering the trap hive.

Apiary site

Much consideration needs to be taken when choosing the apiary site. I cannot place the hives close to a house—people are sure to get stung when I decide to work them. You are asking for a tragedy to happen when keeping hives in the back yard. You never know what might set them off and create a major stinging incident. You have to act like the hive will one day get in an uproar even if it normally seems very calm. You can’t trust them.

I have kept some newly caught swarms in my back yard until I have time to take them to the apiary. They have stayed in the back yard for as much as a month. The back yard had a wall around it and the colonies can’t get too big in the trap hives—not enough room. They get moved to an apiary as soon as I can. A permanent apiary has to be outside of town (no urban beekeeping here!)

I’ll keep some newly caught Africanized swarms temporarily in my back yard until I can move them to one of the apiaries. They are small so they generally cause no problems as long as I don’t bother them. If I do need to do some work near them, I just need to put a bit of smoke on them.  

One consideration for an apiary is that I have a route when I leave the hives that doesn’t make me drag bees back to where people are or where I parked. Sometimes this means taking a longer roundabout way through the pastures and coffee patches when leaving. Coffee is actually good for getting rid of the bees. The branches make it difficult for the bees to stay right on me. 

Sometimes I will go maybe half way and then find a comfortable place to sit for 15 to 30 minutes, occasionally pumping smoke on myself. I’ll be out of sight of the apiary. When I see that most of the bees have stopped buzzing me I get up and go the rest of the way. The sooner I can take off my suit, the better. It is a big attractant. 

The problem is that an Africanized bee usually just doesn’t stop bothering you. Maybe only one or two bees finally come back with you to the truck but they will continually be buzzing around your head. They just won’t leave. I can handle it but normally not the coffee pickers who have to jump in the back of the truck with me. I don’t want other people getting stung by my bees.

Transporting bees

Transporting Africanized bees can be tricky. They are going to come out of the box if they can. Even if it is just one bee that escapes, it is almost a sure thing that she will try to sting you. 

I build my trap hives so they are bee tight—they get a good check and repairs are made before being hung in trees. The idea is that I only need to stuff a piece of sponge in the entrance and seal the bees inside. But if there is a little space in one of the corners, the bees will come out and they will sting me if they can. For extra insurance and ease of mind, I put the trap hives inside a feed sack for transporting. If bees escape, they are inside the bag and I don’t have to worry about them. My wife sews a bag and a half together so they are large enough.

Bees in a bag. Moving hives of Africanized bees is tricky because the bees will try to get out and they will try to sting you. I need to seal the hive really well. When moving trap hives, I also put them in a bag so if some do happen to escape they are trapped inside.

Moving full hives of Africanized bees in a Langstroth box is even trickier. There is some migratory beekeeping in Honduras. There are also those large melon farms that move the hives from one field to the next. First you want good equipment that isn’t deteriorated. Before everything is moved, the hives are checked for holes. Pieces of plastic bags can be stuffed into any spaces from which you think the bees may escape. Give the bees time to propolize the boxes together so there is less chance of shifting during travel. 

Bottoms should be attached to the boxes in some way—nailed together with a cleat or a small strip of wood. I also like to tie the boxes together as extra insurance. When working with the hives used for pollination on the melon farm in the southern part of Honduras we would use the plastic strapping strips that would normally get put on the boxes of melons being exported. They can be tightened down to the point where they bite into the wood. Everything stays together. 

The entrances need to be sealed up. We are in the tropics here, the weather doesn’t get cold enough to keep them inside on their own. If the trip is particularly long (several hours) a ventilation cover can be put on them.

My biggest problem with Africanized bees

The biggest problem I have with Africanized bees is a side issue related to their defensiveness. I can deal with their temperament—I know how to suit up well and work them. But for the sake of everyone else, they can’t be in the back yard. They have to be in an out yard, outside of town, and then at least 100 yards from a house or road. 

Having to have the apiary far from a house means that anyone can enter it to steal honey. This is the biggest problem I have with beekeeping in Honduras. There is a distinct lack of respect for the property of others. Unfortunately it is perceived that anything unattended has no owner and is free for the taking. Most people do not want anything to do with bees, but there is always someone who knows enough and without scruples who will rob you. 

Twice I have lost complete apiaries—of Africanized bees. They went into the yard and pushed all the hives over—probably as a way to get rid of the bees and get at the honey. Everything was strewn all over the apiary as a way of getting rid of the bees. One of these yards had about 30 hives and the other about 50. This theft also seems to generally occur at night. I could see where the thieves started a fire. I always like to think that the bees can protect themselves but that unfortunately isn’t the truth.

The bees are what they are—I can’t change how they behave. I just deal with their behavior and manage them as best I can. But people supposedly know right from wrong are another issue.

Theft and vandalism are my biggest problems having to keep Africanized bees. The hives have to be kept outside of town in an area away from houses and people. This makes them fair game to theft, even though the bees are Africanized. Most people don’t want anything to do with them but there is always some dishonest person who knows a little something about dealing with bees.


Also see my companion blog in Spanish, “Reflexiones Sobre Apicultura.”