Beekeeping Could be Viable Industry for VI Farmers

Robin Mountain, apiculture extension associate at Kentucky State University, works a bee hive in St. Thomas.

As part of the Univerity of the Virgin Islands’ (UVI) ongoing effort to improve sustainable agriculture in the Virgin Islands, beekeeping offers a unique opportunity for local farmers. A number of diseases that plague stateside bees don’t exist in the V.I., and the year-round growing season allows for an almost constant production of honey and other bee by-products.

Wax moths, which often infiltrate weak hives, are the only major problem that V.I. beekeepers face, according to Robin Mountain, an apiculture extension associate at Kentucky State University.

Mountain, a second-generation South African beekeeper who recently immigrated to the United States, led a workshop on Dec. 15 at the V.I. National Park conference room, which was sponsored by the UVI Cooperative Extension Services (UVI-CES).

“Wax moths do not kill bees, but they will take over a weak hive,” said Mountain. “They are usually a result of poor management. Be grateful that is the only major problem here.”

Exporting bees to the U.S. could be one viable and sustainable local industry.

“Queen bees cost around $15 to $20, and there are over 4 million beehives in the U.S., so someone could easily make a nice living on that,” said Mountain. “There is no reason why V.I. beekeepers can’t be exporting bees to America. We are currently trying to open those channels.”

V.I. beekeepers should fill a niche by breeding bees that are resistant to diseases that exist stateside.

“Look at what is needed on the market and breed against the diseases,” said Mountain. “There is a tremendous amount of genetic material that could be brought over from the mainland and established here to create a commercially viable industry.”

To protect the local bee population, all bees that come into the territory in containers should be immediately killed, because they might be carrying a potentially crippling disease.

Local farmers need to make every effort to capture local queens instead of importing bees from outside the territory.

“Use the bees that are flying around in the trees,” said Mountain. “If they are existing here they don’t have a disease, because it would have killed them by now.”

Although there is a wealth of technical and scientific information relating to bees, beginning beekeepers need to know only a few basic strategies before starting their hives.

A general understanding of the life cycle of a queen bee, which is the hub of the hive and lays all the eggs, is essential. Novices would also benefit from knowing the roles of drones, the males that only have the job of mating with the queen, and worker bees, the females that tend the hive and feed the larvae.

There are a number of different materials for hives on the expanding market of beekeeping supplies, but Mountain recommended plastic for the tropics.

“Hives can really be made out of anything,” he said. “Just look around, there are hives everywhere—in cement, in wood. For here, the durable polystyrene is probably best.”

Hives should be placed in a sunny and ventilated area, and kept away from animal traffic and thoroughfares. Beginning beekeepers should also keep a minimum of two hives to be able to compare one with the other.

Quality beekeeping equipment is important for good hive management.

“If you want to start producing honey for the tourist market here, make sure to have good equipment,” said Mountain. “The most important thing with beekeeping is good management.”

Mountain recently developed a machine that extracts and processes honey.

“You just put a frame at one end and get a bottle of honey out of the other side,” Mountain said about the $6,000 piece of equipment.

Streamlining the production process has made the beekeeping industry grow by “leaps and bounds,” he added.

People often get caught up with trying to identify the different types of bees found in an area, which is a waste of time, according to Mountain.

“The bees that you have here are such hybrids, they are really mutts,” he said. “You have a tropical bee. Let’s get happy that we have a tropical bee on the island.”

Establishing beekeeping associations in the V.I. is one of Mountain’s main goals.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to establish associations,” he said. “They will really help in the future for sharing resources and research.”

UVI-CES officials brought Mountain to the territory to answer a call for more beekeeping expertise.

“I hope to see beekeeping get popular here because we actually have beekeepers on all three islands, and a lot of people don’t even know that,” said CES District Supervisor Dr. Louis E. Petersen. “The local beekeepers want more training and exposure to the art and science of beekeeping, and we are pleased to be responsive to that.”

Mountain plans to return to the territory within a year.

“I would love to see beekeeping take off in the islands, and I will be back to check up on things,” he said.

Mountain is hoping to bring the Caribbean Beekeepers Association’s annual convention to the V.I. in the future.