St. Croix’s apiarists turned out to honor the humble honey bee Saturday at the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture’s second annual Beekeeping "Buzzzar."
Ag Commissioner Louis Petersen said the event was part of his department’s ongoing Virgin Fresh campaign, which encourages citizens to buy locally grown produce. The campaign focused on beekeeping this month because September is National Honey Month.
Under a large tent outside Sunshine Mall, local beekeepers sold their honey and wax products while simultaneously preaching the importance of bees.
“Bees are important because they pollinate many of the fruit crops that we consume and take for granted on a daily basis,” Petersen said.
He said that bees pollinate as much as 33 percent of the fruits we buy, and that many of the territory’s wild species depend on the insect for their survival.
An educational display in one corner of the tent listed the many fruits that honey bees make possible: avocados, guava, kenep, carambola and even mangoes.
“Here in the territory, we eat mangoes all the time, not even being aware of how important the honey bees were in producing that crop of mangoes for you,” Petersen said.
The event was part of an ongoing effort to promote beekeeping in the territory begun in 2008, Petersen said. At that time the territory received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a 12-week program that trained 100 new beekeepers. Before the training, Petersen says he can only recall five beekeepers doing business in the Virgin Islands.
Petersen said the new beekeepers have expanded the market for local honey while at the same time ensuring a healthy bee population in the territory. He said this was important because in some areas of the United States bee populations have been decimated by colony collapse disorder, and overall agricultural production has fallen as a result.
“We don’t have that problem here as of yet, and I hope we never do,” he said. “But it’s for us to appreciate the importance of the bees and to continue to preserve them so we can continue having even higher levels of production.”
Errol Chichester said he was one of the people to sign up for the department’s beekeeping training in 2008. Before then he had been fascinated by bees, but never tried to raise them. Now he keeps between 50 and 60 active hives on his property.
“It’s a lot for someone with a full time job,” he said. “But the bees do this stuff on their own. You just have to monitor them occasionally and see that they have enough space to extend and produce honey.”
Chichester said he harvests anywhere between 20 and 100 pounds of honey from each of his hives, which he then bottles and sells. Since taking part in the training program in 2008, he’s heard of many people taking up beekeeping as a side project to make a little extra money.
Of course honey is just one of the products that derive from bees. Vendors at the event were selling everything from wax candles to honey-based salad dressings.
Wanda Wright, who has been keeping bees for 17 years, said she has, at one time or another, tried her hand at creating most bee-related products. She said she started with just honey then progressed to making lip balms and salves from the wax.
Today she is focusing on mead, an ancient alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey. At her table she handed out samples of her product, each infused with the flavor of a local fruit, such as mango, yellow plum, and passion fruit.
She said beekeeping wasn’t something people did casually.
“You’re either passionate about it or you’re not,” she said.
She added that keeping bees had taught her a lot about human society as well.
“They also have their social gifts to us,” she said. “How to function as a community, how to work together, how to honor each other, no matter who you are or what your role is in the community, everyone is equally important because without everyone, no one can survive. That’s what the bee colony is about”
“I think people have different ways of relating to that,” she added.