Assessment of the Apiculture Industry in St. Lucia, West Indies
Dennis van Engelsdorp
Farmer to Farmer Consultation Report - March 25 to April 5 2003
Apiculture in St Lucia has tremendous potential. In fact, fully realized it could become a leading industry on this Island state. Conservatively an estimated US$ 6.5 to 17.5 million worth of honey could be produced annually. Realization of this potential is dependant on several factors. When asked, St. Lucians consistently identify the primary factor limiting their industry’s growth - the saturation of domestic honey markets. If International honey markets could be tapped, however, the present level of indigenous beekeeping expertise could easily make large strides towards the industry’s expansion. However, a large and potentially crippling hurdle to this expansion is the management of the recently introduced honey bee parasite, the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor). While the current use of Apistan is an effective mite control practice, the history of mite management in Europe and America suggest that chemical control is only a short-term solution, as pesticide resistant mites are widely reported where mite control relies solely on the use of one pesticide. The St. Lucian industry would be well advised to explore other Varroa mite control measures, including cultural controls (such as the use of screened bottom boards) and less toxic chemical controls (formic acid; essential oils). As many of these alternative control measures are climate dependant, testing these measures “on island” would be critical. Over the long term, however, introduction and/or breeding a stock of bees that is resistant to mites would be the most sustainable solution. Breeding bees is an involved process that would require significant investments of time and resources; however, the potential benefits resulting from an industry working collaboratively to establish a mite resistant bee stock is not limited to a reduction of pesticide use. It has the added advantages of prompting advanced beekeeping techniques and management systems, decreasing dependence on foreign inputs, encouraging strong and mutually beneficial North-South linkages, and fostering new beekeepers and industry leaders.
Purpose and Primary Objectives
This report results from a trip organized through the Farmer-to-Farmer (FTF) program, which is sponsored by Partners of America.
(Without the dedicated staff both at their head office in Washington, the energy and enthusiasms of local US coordinator Barbara Cannas, and committed representatives in St Lucia this report would not have been possible.)
1) To develop/transfer management strategies and/or appropriate technologies for the control of Varroa destructor (previously Varroa jabsoconi), a parasitic mite of European honey bees (Apis mellifera)
- Varroa mites evolved on the Asian honey bee (A. cerna) but in the 1950’s jumped host species and were discovered on A. mellifera managed in SE Asia. Subsequent trade and movement of bees spread the mite from their original range. Presently mites are found in all honey-producing countries with the exception of New Zealand and other island states (i.e. Antigua, WI).
- Typically, when this mite first becomes established large colony losses are reported as producers struggle to incorporate new management practices such as the application of the miticide fluvalinate (sold as Apistan strips).
- St. Lucia is no exception. Prior to mite introduction (1998) there were 3200 colonies managed by 140-150 beekeepers however, after the mites establishment managed colonies decreased to their present numbers of approximately 1500 colonies managed by 70 beekeepers.
To identify barriers to the Apicultural industry’s expansion, and to suggest strategies to overcome identified obstacles.
- As with most agricultural systems there are three broad and interdependent components to the apiculture industry; Markets, Production, and Product Quality. The industry’s expansion is usually limited by the weakest component in this triad.
Major observations and accomplishments
1) Expansion of the project’s original scope.
- While the Mabouya Valley Development Project and the Mellifluous Beekeeper Co-op facilitated this visit, forethought by leaders in both organizations (Mr. E. Agustus and Mr. W. Williams respectively) broadened the project scope to include the entire industry and not solely their respective memberships. Utilizing their extensive island wide networks these organizations ensured contact with appropriate government agencies and a diverse range of beekeepers.
- The close co-operation of Mr. Marcus Dennis, Bee Extensionist with the Ministry of Agriculture, helped ensure that technologies suggested were economically and culturally appropriate. The value of Mr. Dennis’ assistance, in arranging transport, contact with beekeepers, and the development of the recommendations contained within this report cannot be overstated.
2) Varroa mite control
a) Mites on the island are presently being controlled with Apistan strips. Ministry recommendations on the use of these strips have been appropriately adjusted from N. American recommendations to reflect the biology of bees on the Island. This adjustment is testament of the high degree of beekeeping competence found within the island’s industry. However, the long term use of Apistan has several disadvantages:
- Development of Apistan resistant mites (as reported widely in the USA and EU)
- Cost (EC$26 hive/year)
- Risk of contamination of hive products
b) The need to proactively incorporate Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices as part of long-term mite control practices is a concept readily embraced by all producers contacted. In fact, many had experimented with cultural methods (i.e. drone trapping) but, like their American counterparts, they abandoned these methods because of the inordinate amount of time their implementation required. However, this experience did not seem to dissuade St. Lucian beekeepers from a experimenting with new cultural control methods. Many seemed committed to experimenting with screen bottom boards when this technology was suggested and explained.
c) In consultation with industry leaders, Dr. D. Gabriel (Chief Veterinary Officer) and Mr. Dennis, a long-term mite control strategy was developed (see recommended follow-up below).
Barriers to Industry Expansion
Apiculture has a tremendous potential in St Lucia. Blessed with a diverse geography, flora, and consistent and predicable rainy season, St Lucia is presently nowhere near reaching its honey production capacity (Figure 2). While predicting the number of colonies a particular location can maintain is notoriously difficult, an extremely conservative value of one colony per acre suggests that the island could support over 150,000 colonies. With annual yields ranging from 3 to 8 gallons of honey/colony the potential value of the St. Lucian honey crop is US $ 6.5 to $17.5 million . The estimated current value of the industry is US $ 112,000 and $300,000 annually.
“Market, Market, Market”, was the overwhelming response to the question “What is your biggest problem as a beekeeper?” Many beekeepers have honey stored in drums that they are not able to sell for lack of market. Paradoxically, the domestic price of honey, both retail (Figure 1) and wholesale, is considerably higher than the world price (See Table 1). Confronted with this fact, beekeepers often argue that the honey produced on the island is superior to “foreign” honey in taste and quality, and thus the higher prices are justified. Such arguments are difficult to quantify and thus not readily factored into the price paid by international packers. Industry expansion would be greatly assisted if a St. Lucian organization/person would facilitate the collection and sale of honey internationally. While producers would receive substantially less for the honey than they currently receive (if they can sell it), examples in other agricultural sectors would suggest that a guaranteed market for an agricultural product has significant advantages. Two examples that lend credibility to this argument are the experiences/comments of Mr. Francis Joseph and Mr. Lucien. Mr. Joseph a young entrepreneuring and successful farmer (who is a FTF advisor, Trainee, and does not keep bees) grows hot peppers on a large scale because a St. Lucian exporter assures him a market. This steady income permits him and his wife, to support a young family while making modest improvements to their small farm’s infrastructure. Similarly, Mr. Lucien who grows bananas for export stated that he continues production despite the low return on his investment simply because he is assured some return. Mr. Joseph did imply he would consider going into beekeeping if a guaranteed market were established; while Mr. Lucien indicated he would likely increase the size of his operation to that of his pre-Varroa size of 120 colonies (presently he runs 20).
Table 1: Comparison of St. Lucian Domestic Price of Honey with International Prices
- 1 lb = US $ 1.22; National Honey Report: Vol XXII, Num 4; for April 2003 - NOTE: This price is near record highs seen in 2002; it is the opinion of this author that long term projections should use figures closer to five year averages of between us $0.70 and $1.00 per pound wholesale. Prices used are for light amber grade.
- Prices based on informal survey of beekeepers and honey purchasers
- US $ 1 = EC $ 2.67
- Based on range of retail honey prices as reported in World Honey Prices, March 2003, American Bee Journal
The St Lucian beekeepers encountered on this trip were well versed in basic bee management techniques and possessed a knowledge comparable to, if not surpassing, that of their average American counterpart. At first the beekeepers’ demonstrated competence seemed to contradict with some of their ‘in field’ practices. For instance, the largest producer on the island David Estiphane (400 colonies which produce on average 6 gal/year), often transports (by hand) extracting equipment to his respective apiaries (Figure 3). Most full time American honey producers build a dedicated honey house and move their honey supers to the honey house for more efficient extraction. However, considering the steep slopes which need to be traversed to access Mr. Estiphane’s yards, and the fact that honey comb removed from hives are quickly destroyed by wax moth larva (a pest easily controlled if extracted supers are immediately placed back on bees), Mr. Estaphane’s extraction system is likely the best system for honey harvest.
This is not to say that there is no room for improvement in St Lucian beekeeping management practices. Generally, beekeepers could realize significant increases in honey production if a full complement of frames were consistently placed in colonies, thus avoiding the wasteful practice of cutting burr comb. A simple appreciation that bees consume the equivalent of approximately 1 gal of honey to produce 1 lb of wax should encourage more care in hive comb management.
Like all honey-producing areas, the quality of honey produced in St. Lucia varies according to floral source, processing and handling, and storage time and treatment. If international markets are to be cultured, separation of the honey from different sources should be prioritized as lighter honeys command a better price than dark honeys (US$1.36/lb for water white grade vs. US$1.18/lb amber grade (2002 average price)). One of the major nectar producing plants on the island is logwood, which produces a honey renowned for its light color and taste. However, the tail end of logwood tree bloom overlaps with that of mango tree bloom; since mango honey is dark, keeping these two honeys separate, by strategically timing extraction, would increase the resulting crops value.
Direct Impact - Contacts
A wide cross section of the apicultural industry was contacted by direct visitation. These visits included contact with hobby (making little to no profit on their bees), sideline (who subsidize their annual income with their bees) and commercial (who generate a majority of their annual income from bees). In all 35 beekeepers operations were directly contacted (12 were present during the tours of their operations; 17 were face to face contacts without seeing their operations; and 6 operations were toured without the beekeeper present). This represented nearly 35% of all honey producers on the island. Further several government officials/offices were contacted, and partners of the FTF program were meet. A national meeting organized by the Mabouya Valley Development Project and the Mellifluous Beekeepers Co-op was attended by 12 beekeepers, all but two of whom had not been contacted during previous visits. A talk entitled “Varroa mites: Biology and Control” was given, and the slide set was left for future use. After the formal talk informal discussions lead by Mr. Marcus summarized some of the strategies summarized in this report. In all an attendance at this meeting of about 10% of the total beekeepers on the island and is quite remarkable compared to attendance levels in typical N. American Bee meetings (i.e. Pennsylvanian State beekeeper meetings are typically attended by less than 4% of active beekeepers).
It should be noted that the President of the National Beekeepers Association, Mr. Jadgahar was contacted. Mr Jadgahar is clearly an industrious and highly intelligent man with many important and valuable skills. Unfortunately, he had clear ideas about what assistance the industry needed and seemed to dismiss outright the value of any projects that focused on technology transfer, industry empowerment, and/or market development rather then the direct transfer of tangible resources.
The following Strategic Plan was developed in collaboration with Marcus Dennis, Apicultural Extensionist. In addition, leaders of the Bee Industry, attendees at a national bee meeting, and St Lucia’s Chief Veterinarian Officer (Dr. Gabriel) were consulted on all/part of the plan.
1) Test various “less toxic” Varroa mite control products
If Varroa mites evolve resistance at a rate similar to that experienced in Europe and N. America, one would expect Apistan resistant mites on the island within 3 to 7 years. Use of less toxic alternatives could slow and prepare for this eventuality.
- Action (responsible agent):
i Locate and import Liquid formic acid (65%) and/or other soft/organic chemical control (i.e. bee calmer) (Dept of Agr./DvE)
ii Develop experimental protocol (DvE)
iii Implement experiment (Dept. of Agr; Beekeeper; possible parallel study DvE)
iv Analysis of results (DvE)
c. Disseminate findings (Dept. of Agr)
d. Time line:
i Experiment should commence at end of late nectar flow (October 2003)
ii Results should be available in March 2004.
2) Develop the networks required to export honey
The single largest barrier to the apicultural industry’s expansion in St. Lucia is the saturation of the domestic market and absence of alternative markets. Of the 19 beekeepers directly interviewed 4 reported having stores of honey on hand for more then one year (totaling over 5000 lbs). While honey, stored properly, is non-perishable its value reduces significantly over time as levels of HMF naturally increase, darkening the honey.
- Action (responsible agent)
i Contact American honey packers to determine import requirements and procedures (DvE)ii Set up St. Lucian honey broker (either an individual or organization) to collect samples for American packers to analyze (Beekeepers/FTF partners/Min of Agr.?)iii Arrange collection and honey shipment (Beekeepers/FTF partners/Min of Agr.?)iv Arrange transport of honey from port of entry to packer (FTF chapter?/DvE?)
i Contact with Dutch Gold Honey Packers have been made (Vice President of sales Ms. Gamber (1800 338-0587)). Discussions concluded with her recommendation that the an import broker be contacted directly, and subsequently Mr. Nick Sargent of Sunland Imports was contacted. He highlighted that it would be difficult to import honey unless enough was imported to fill a standard shipping container (60 55 gal drums). He also outlined some of the requirements needed for imports (i.e. sampling etc.) An initial export of 40 000 lbs, which represents between 35 and 75 % of the present annual production of St. Lucia seems impractical at this time. However, alternative strategies, such as exploring the possibility of sharing cargo room with other exporters through local exporting companies should not be ruled out. Similarly, establishing agents in the US who would help facilitate the import of honey at a smaller scale should be explored. (DvE)
ii Persons involved with the export of products should be made aware of changing import food laws mandated by the US federal government to ensure compliance.
3) Quantifying Apiculture’s contribution to St. Lucian Economy
When seeking funding and/or other resources for development projects, basic industry facts assist in arguments used to justify projects, help quantify project impact, and eventually help asses project success
b. Action (responsible agent):
i Quantify the value of honey production in St Lucia (M.Dennis and DvE)
ii Quantify the contribution honey bees make to St Lucian agriculture through the pollination of food crops (M.Dennis and DvE)
iii Quantify the potential value of honey production in St. Lucia (M.Dennis and DvE)
c. Time Line:
i Collection of basic industry facts (M.Dennis –complete)
ii Tabulate Honey production value and estimated potential (M. Dennis and DvE – complete – see above)
ii Collect production figures for crops reliant on pollination for fruit set (M. Dennis – by September)
iv Research the % reliance of identified crops on honey bees for pollination and thereby determine the monetary value of honey bee pollination service (DvE –by October).
Long Term Goals
Development of Mite Resistant Honey Bee Stock bred to maximize production in St. Lucia’s climate
The best mite control is the use of mite resistant bee stock. Projects that aim to develop such a stock have been initiated throughout the world resulting, most recently, with the distribution of SMR resistant stock in the USA. However, due to the difficulty inherent in any honey bee breeding project, breeding efforts have solely focused on mite resistance. Once successful, the traits that facilitated resistance should be integrated into a stock that demonstrates other economically important traits. As bee behavior is significantly influenced by environmental factors, the best approach to development of resistant stock would be the incorporation of resistant genes into stocks of bee selected for St. Lucian conditions. Such incorporation is not technically difficult; however, would require an honest, transparent, and detailed risk analysis; beekeepers trained in queen rearing and basic bee breeding concepts and practice; the identification of superior St. Lucian stock; followed by a controlled introduction and distribution of resistant stock. Each of these components would empower the industry, potentially train new beekeepers and industry leaders, increase island production, and decrease the industry’s reliance on imported inputs. Further, the development of a domestic queen rearing and bee breeding will decrease the likelihood of importation of Africanized bees or other bee diseases as the availability of quality queens will decrease the temptation to import queens from other countries (as is the suspected mode of entry of Varroa mites in 1998).
i. Perform a detailed Island wide survey for all known honeybee pathogens. Detection should not be limited to well known honey bee pests (Acrapisi woodii, Nosema sp., Panabacilus larvae subsp larvae, etc) thought to be absent in St. Lucia; but also include testing for the presence/absence of honey bee viruses. Few labs are capable of detecting honey bee viruses, so one of these (ie. Penn State, Department of Entomology) would need to be recruited to collaborate in this project. This step is crucial as recent research clearly shows that viruses may cause significant, previously unexplained, hive mortality. Further some of these viruses may be transferred in eggs laid by infected queens as well as by Varroa mites.
ii. Conduct Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding workshops
Will identify and train industry leader who will eventually assist in the production and distribution of resistant stock. Even if the industry chooses not to import resistant stock, participants in this workshop would learn the necessary skills to improve native stock. Development of a regular supply of quality queens should help the industry expand as it would allow certain beekeepers to produce and sell colonies of bees, foregoing the present practice which requires new beekeepers to find and catch feral bee colonies.
iii. Conducting this workshop could overlap with the disease survey to maximize utilization of resources.
a. Import and distribution of mite resistant stock
b. After assessing the risks involved in importing resistant stock, an importation protocol that minimizes introduction of new bee diseases should be established. Protocols developed for stock introduction into Canada and the USA in the 1980’s and 1990’s should be consulted.
c. Collaboration with researchers currently involved in the production of SMR (or other resistant stocks) should be sought and controlled importation should commence.
d. Selected queen producers should prepare for mass production of virgin queens, which should then be distributed island wide, dispersing the desired resistant traits.
e. Co-operating beekeepers should continue to selectively breed colonies which demonstrate several desirable traits.
This is a large, involved project and would require the identification of an a Northern expert who could facilitate contacts, identify grants, and facilitate communication between St. Lucian collaborators/stakeholders and their American counter parts (or EU counter parts). Initial discussions in St. Lucia and with Penn State indicate a general interest that could easily be fostered into this project’s realization.