Take Me On A Bee Cruise

By: Katherine Kiefer

In January 2017 at the joint meeting of the ABF, AHPA and CHC in Galveston, the University of Minnesota Bee Squad began to spread the word of their inaugural Bee Cruise. What?!? A Bee Cruise? It happened and I was on it.

A moment here to introduce the Bee Squad – The University of Minnesota has as a community building and community outreach program called the Bee Squad (www.beelab.umn.edu/bee-squad). These folks work as beekeepers for corporate sponsors and they work with individual hobby beekeepers. They charge fees to maintain hives around the campus and around the St Paul/Minneapolis locale. They answer questions (often by asking them), they publish and publicize issues, they educate and are educated. They take pictures; they encourage logical and clean beekeeping techniques. They organized this cruise. Becky Masterman got the idea off the ground and her Squad made all the details fall into place. They were wonderful, never lost their tempers – and we knew when to move because the leader of the moment would call out, “WALKING’” while holding up a sign – we beekeepers, though not instinctively obedient would follow along to the next destination and next new thing. And we were always glad to get there.

I have to admit that I never even considered going on a cruise until I heard about this one. Then I considered it only because of the three part agenda. The base line that played under the seven days aboard ship was “Bee Health and Conservation.” The other two headings were Excursions and Symposium Presentations. On the days when we were traveling to our excursion sites, there were symposiums – with speakers from our group. Marla Spivak spoke about how she became interested in apiculture, her life and work in South America and her early work there with Africanized bees. She spoke of her observations about honey bee genetics, and her work at the University of Minnesota with students, co-workers and honey bees. She stressed how much can be accomplished when ecological issues in the world are considered in relation to individual beekeepers, whether they keep two colonies or 32,000 colonies.

The symposium speakers usually started their remarks with something like, “It is quite difficult to decide what to say to an audience with the knowledge base that you all have . . .” We loved hearing that and then we listened hard, because I at least, always learned some interesting things from each person.

John Miller, from Miller Honey Farms told of his family’s history as beekeepers (presently at five generations) and talked at great detail about storing bees in buildings as a wintering technique in Idaho. Beekeepers have tried using potato barns in Idaho for wintering, and have developed ideas and theories about reducing moisture build up and monitoring carbon dioxide levels around the hives. Potato barns are, after all, built for potatoes not honey bees.  John shared some interesting observations about the relationships between temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, mite drop and air circulation in new buildings as compared to actual potato barns. Miller Honey Farms (www.millerhoneyfarms.com) has been building, using their own designs, buildings for honey bees. John said that over the next decade, large ideas are being fulfilled and that the health of the northern wintered honey bee colonies will improve because of these building environments. He also said that two important components of his family’s success are (1) the ability to do what is necessary at the right time for the bees, and (2) to always be thinking 180 days out in front of the present day’s work.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, from the University of Maryland (www.vanengelsdorpbeelab.com) spoke twice – once on the mainland before we boarded the ship and another time during a symposium. He is a founding member of the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP). Dennis’s talks were utterly engaging and informative for all levels of involvement with bees. He spoke about insects, their evolution over time, the complexity of their reproductive cycles, their diet, their behavior and of course, he described the organism called “colony” and its best practitioner, the honey bee. He had many short videos to share. Just remembering the visuals stimulates my memory of the points Dennis brought to us.

Larry Conner of Wicwas Press (www.wicwas.com) had a reading list for us, shared thoughts about research, THE footnote, pitfalls of the World Wide Web and the importance of source materials for research and in social media. Mis-information helps no person, and more importantly does not help the honey bee. Larry talked of queen rearing, gave a guide for organizing your first (or tenth) book on beekeeping and was available for questions throughout the cruise.

Darrel Rufer, beekeeper of Waverly, MN & deep in east Texas (link through Facebook, Rufers Apiaries) spoke of the hard work and deep family connections in his business. He shared how the business grew over his lifetime, and how honey bees and beekeeping became his life work. His dedication is an inspiration. His humor is infectious.

David Mendes, formerly of Headwaters Farm and a retired commercial beekeeper, shared his annual calendar of moves and splits. He was originally from Massachusetts and now is from Florida, where he keeps as a hobby, about three hundred colonies. While he owned Headwaters, David focused on pollination and was very involved with cranberries in Massachusetts. Any beekeeper thinking of developing pollination services as part of their business plan would do well to consider the issues raised by David. David kept up banter with all on the excursions and aboard ship, and was more than ready to teach ANYONE (even me) how to play poker. He kept telling me that when I put money on the table, I would learn quickly. That is likely how he learned to keep bees alive through pollination services!

Elaine Evans, PhD, from the University of Minnesota spoke about wild bees, which included stingless bees and bumbus. Our first excursion off the ship was in Cozumel, Mexico. Elaine’s talk set us up to know what to look for with stingless bees. Their colonies are in hollow branches, have small populations and their honey is high in moisture. The honey is primarily used medicinally. We sampled the honey and it was not overly sweet. “Very expensive,” we were told.  “Very expensive.” Stingless bees require the same environmental considerations of clean forage and adequate blooms as honey bees.

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.

The next day, we went ashore at George Town, Grand Cayman. We got very close to, but not into, colonies of Otto Watler, the best known and perhaps the only Cayman beekeeper. All the commercials in our group wanted to get out hive tools and get into “it” to see whether there were mites, etc., etc. We did see and walk through the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park – 65 acres of garden, habitat and blue iguana restoration. It is spectacular – we walked “through a multicoloured mosaic of hundreds of species of tropical and sub tropical plants spread over approximately 2.5 acres. Flowering plants and shrubs, succulents and cacti are arranged by color in nine distinct displays.” (www.caymanislands.ky/activities). I also walked through the native plant section and was the last person back on the bus (sorry Becky!) It was spectacular. For a while I walked with Larry Conner who was naming all the plants he recognized, with scientific names.  I was also naming plants that grow in green houses and plant rooms in New England. Larry knew more than I did. 

Thursday the 12th was our Jamaican day. We got on to two smaller busses and went up from Falmouth to visit the Jamaica EcoFarms Project (www.ecofarmsjamaica.com) and on Facebook Buzz by EcoFarms Jamaica in Mandeville. The ride up and down the steep mountainsides was spectacular, nerve wracking and definitely worth doing again, but more slowly. There seems to be a lot of high lime ground in Jamaica with very little topsoil. On the steep, steep hillsides, “air potatoes” (a yam) and bananas are grown. Burros are used instead of tractors because of the steepness, and the island is also seismically active – there are geologic plates shifting and earthquakes happen frequently. (www.sfmgeology.com/JamaicaGeology3.html) It is an exciting place. Our first stop was Jamaica Deaf Village. It is located in Coolshade on the outskirts of the town of Mandeville. A deaf man opened a hive for us, moving slowly, with smoke and grace. The school needs an infusion of new equipment, probably to be built on site as part of the learning.

The next part of EcoFarms to be visited was high on a hillside with about 45 colonies on metal stands. It was a classic bee yard that requires all hand work, and lifting and transport on foot. The view across the small valley was breath taking – we could see tropical rain showers moving around and toward us.

Back to our buses and on to EcoFarms store and honey house. They had also packed us a local lunch of chicken or pork jerk, bread fruit, rice and beans, and a salad. We bought honey – I skipped the flavored with tamarind one and stuck to floral sourced honeys only. Grace Foster-Reid is the principal of this project (Managing Director, EcoFarms (Jamaica’s honey innovator, gracefr@alum.mit.edu Engineering Project Manager, EnvironMed Limited (Sustainable engineering & medicine).

Any one wanting more information or wanting to help the educational part of the program to grow, please contact Ms Foster-Reid. One small observation – many of us on the bus back to the ship tried to imagine what it would be like to be a deaf beekeeper – to not have any of the sound cues that we all honor and learn from. It was yet another great day.

More Symposium talks: Katie Lee, also from the University of Minnesota shared her work on Tech Transfer Teams (beelab.umn.edu) – how information from beekeepers about honey bees and beekeeping is processed. Her work is enormously helpful to scientists and beekeepers alike.

Pat Heitkam, from Northern California and a queen breeder, spoke primarily about Project Apis m and the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. My take away from getting to know Pat on the trip is that we, on the cruise, have way more in common than not. For our bees and businesses to survive and thrive we beekeepers need to share information, encourage everyone’s interest and most importantly we ALL need to support Ag Extension activities, 4-H, bee clubs and consumer interest in American honey in what ever state or states are home(s) to our bees.

There were also a couple of panel discussions where we all could ask or share, and experts in the room would respond or ask even more questions. These sessions encouraged us all – and inspired us.

Cruise details, for those who have never done one. We were on the Liberty of the Seas, part of the Royal Caribbean Cruise group.  There were about 80 people in our group, with departure from Galveston, Texas on Sunday October 8, and return the 15th. We had a stateroom with its own view of the water from our balcony. The room was so QUIET – remarkable and a gift. The bed was comfortable; sleep was deep. Room service was included in the amount pre-paid, so as long as we stuck to the continental breakfast definition, fresh coffee, milk, granola and fresh fruit arrived and we enjoyed same on the balcony. For dinner, the Bee Squad members had tables reserved, so we mixed and matched. Every evening we sat with different people, every evening we talked bees, honey, mites, clean forage, trucking expenses, pollination, California almonds, neo-nics, and queens. And of course relived the days excursions, complete with jokes and laughs – it was wonderful. After dinner some played poker, or played on the water slides or danced. Some retired to some of the bars and lounges aboard the ship and talked and talked into the night. Some spent time in the open bow of the ship, high above the Gulf of Mexico and watched thunderstorms close and far away. Some went to their rooms and enjoyed the quiet and privacy.

Is this the first annual Bee Squad Cruise? We don’t know; but it was a great first. Oh – one final thing I would like to acknowledge is that, according to Larry Connor, honey bee is always two words.