They speak of bees like mothers speak of babes. Their eyes gleam with awe and what can only be described as love, amongst a medley of other emotions. Perhaps only fellow beekeepers could share the care and fascination of Audrey and Mortimer Wilson, but even if you aren’t a beekeeper, they certainly make you want to understand their passion, their fascination with one of the busiest species on earth.
At a time when others complain of lack of opportunity, the Wilsons have marked out a means of survival and well-being for themselves in their nine-year- old business, Wilpar Limited. Even when the hard knocks of the 90’s in the beekeeping industry came, they did not give up.
Following an attack of the dreaded varroa mite disease that practically wiped out their colonies, bringing them down from nearly 100 to 12, the enterprising couple have had to start from scratch again, or as Mr. Wilson insists, they have had to “continue”, despite the odds.
Based on research carried out in the United States, a way has been found to improve honey bee survival and the Wilsons have been experimenting with the latest methods of enabling the bees to build smaller than usual cells to rear their young and store honey.
Mr. Wilson explains that the arrival of the varroa took local beekeepers by surprise, and many unwittingly spread it right through their operation before they knew they had it. “It wreaked havoc in the industry worldwide.
We have discovered this cell size solution that we have been using and we have seen very good results. What we are doing is a non-chemical approach. The method we are using is to bring the bee back to its natural size by using a foundation sheet with the size adjusted. It is working very well so far,” he explains, adding, “normally you wouldn’t have bees over four months without chemicals. We could be on to something here. It looks very positive. It’s something that beekeepers could look at as an option to the chemical system. Our desire is to keep bees without chemicals”.
The Wilsons didn’t stumble onto bee keeping. Establishing their bee farm was a deliberate strategy to get involved in a business that they could still continue to do as they grew older.
Mrs. Wilson says once they decided that this was what they were going to do, inspired by her husband’s father and his family’s bee-keeping background, they have literally bee slugging at the task. “We wanted to get into something a bit slower that you could still do as you get older.
Organisations change so rapidly that before you know it you are obsolete and you are replaced and you are left exposed and you have to begin now at a later stage to decide where to go from there. You need to start thinking about your future early,” she says. Explaining the functions of keeping an apiary, Mr. Wilson says once an apiary is established, checks have to be made to ensure that the queen is always there as she mates in the air and may be preyed on by birds. “The hive cannot exist without that queen.
Once they realize that there is no queen, they have to make a new queen or they will just dwindle and perhaps join other hives,” Mrs. Wilson explains. The queen lays an average of 1,000 eggs per day and the bees only live for about three weeks, therefore, it is very important to keep the queen alive as long as possible as there would be a very small population if the stock is not being replenished.
“The harmony of the hive is a very interesting thing. All the functions of the hive are divided up amongst the bees and they do their job. Nobody wants to cancel and supercede the queen,” Mrs. Mortimer says with a glint in her eyes.
They further explain that as the bees get older they graduate to different jobs, but continue to keep the hive up, running efficiently. “Everybody works towards that and I think that is something that we as humans can appreciate and learn from,” Mrs. Wilson remarks. After inspection, the apiarist has to keep checking for another two to three weeks just to make sure the brood pattern, the laying patterns are in tact and that the hives are not infested with ants or other insects.
“One of the interesting things to see is in the morning at first light when the bees are headed out, eager to work. They get out at five minutes to six to feed and then at 3 o’clock you see them coming in. It is beautiful to see these hundreds of bees,” Mrs. Wilson beams. The bees use the sun, the geographical area and the position of the boxes as a guiding system. “That is why it is important not to disturb the position of the box. Once they have established the parameters and they know exactly where they are going to zone back in,” Mr. Wilson elaborates.
Each day, the bees collect pollen and nectar among other honey making material until the cells are packed and the boxes are full. Then the Wilsons go in and reap the honey. The Wilsons point out that there are a lot of matter produced in the hive that can be used for complaints such as arthritis, colds and ulcers.
“It has been an up and down hill so far. You have to be very resilient. You really can’t afford to let the knocks push you down,” Mrs. Wilson says of their experiences over the years. On average, the couple inform, honey can be reaped up to three times per year, with February to July being the peak period.
“In Kingston, with the right environment, you can constantly reap. Other parishes tend to have definite reaping periods. Jamaica has a great advantage over temperate climate countries, in that we don’t have winter and we can be keeping bees and taking off honey round the clock,” Mr. Wilson notes.
Mrs. Wilson points out that Jamaica’s honey is very unique as the indigenous herbs that the bees draw from and put into their honey gives the fluid a distinction from honey produced elsewhere in the world. “So, our honey is really fantastic,” she says.
Each colony yields approximately nine litres of honey, therefore, up to 40.5 litres (nine gallons) can be achieved per reaping. Mr.Wilson emphasizes, “the larger the apiary, the more the possibility of collecting. Apiary skill is very important. If the apiarist is not skilled in his techniques, then he won’t be able to maximize on the output of the hives”.
The Wilsons expressed deep gratitude at the assistance that has been extended to them through the Jamaica Business Development Centre (JBDC), which they said helped them to create labels for a variety of bottle sizes and redesigned their original label.
“They really helped us, not only with the labeling, but marketing as well with flyers, banners, and they involved us in their conferences. They have really been instrumental in us growing and we are very grateful to them. It is not easy for a small producer to be exposed to all the different areas that your business really needs especially when you don’t have a lot of money. When you can go to a one stop shop and they can help you with everything, it makes your life a lot easier and a lot more productive,” Mrs. Wilson says.
She adds that Wilpar sells its honey both on a wholesale and retail basis and that they tended to leave the supermarkets to the smaller beekeepers who need the outlet and are unable to access some of the areas that they can access. Wilpar sells mainly to hotels and gift shops. She stresses that there is a great market worldwide for honey. Wilpar honey is being marketed under the brand name ‘Lalibela’.
The Wilsons highlight the importance of flexibility. They turned to castor oil when the varroa mite hit, a venture that has turned out to be a fulfilling one. Mrs. Wilson says the castor oil tree is very common in Jamaica and grows wildly, an opportunity which they capitalized on and today, they produce 100 per cent virgin castor oil under the brand name EYL. “You have to be constantly thinking of how to add to what you do and increase your earnings,” she says.