Ben The Bajan Beekeeper
An adventure is when you start a journey not knowing where it will end.
So when I set off to the Caribbean, in search of a typical beekeeper on the island of Barbados, my quest had all the component parts of an adventure: a new destination and no inkling of how an outcome might be achieved.
This was deliberate. I wanted to meet an ordinary beekeeper. My research had already identified my namesake, the bajan beekeeping supremo, Rudy Gibson, as the hottest hand on the island. But I was determined to find my beekeeper by trusting to chance, rather than idly clicking through Google or TripAdvisor. My plan was to arrive in Barbados, don sunglasses, shorts and flip-flops and just keep my eyes and ears open.
It was that simple….and it didn’t take long. On our second evening on the island, my wife, Sarah, and I were walking along the shore road towards Morton’s fish-fry in Moontown, when I stopped to take a photo of this glorious, sunsetting sea-scape.
Then, crossing back over the road to walk with Sarah into the oncoming traffic, I was halted by a sign, halfway up a telegraph pole: its message was unequivocal: “BEE-KEEPER 249-5905 237 5991“.
Relishing the pin-sticking happenstance of my discovery, I sat down the next day to call the number displayed on this battered, flaking rectangle. I dialled, the phone was answered: ‘Hello,” I ventured, “I’m a beekeeper from London, England, and I’m visiting Barbados – are you the beekeeper ?”
“Yes, that’s me. I’m Ben the Beekeeper. Would you mind calling me back on this other number? This one’s a mobile which is low on credit”.
Impressive: I knew immediately by this thrifty welcome that I had encountered a true beekeeper !
And soon after calling Ben on his other number, I recognised another typical beekeeper’s trait. Ben liked a chat. Particularly about his bees. Ben explained that his name was not actually Ben, nor indeed was his surname “The Beekeeper” which, I assured him, was a common complication in England, too. Ben told me about his family’s Guyanese beekeeping pedigree, his apiary site in Christchurch parish and his natural cure for “varona” (varroa). So far, so good.
And better yet, Ben was an urban beekeeper, living in Carrington Village, a town of narrow, dusty streets just north of Bridgetown, the principal city of Barbados, which itself is the most densely populated of all the Caribbean islands! As a keeper of very urban bees myself, this adventure was turning out better than I had hoped…
A few hours later, Sarah and I pulled up outside a squat house off Belmont Street adorned with the same “BEE-KEEPER 249-5905 237 5991” sign as I had seen on the telephone pole – except this signage filled a 4-foot high and 6-foot wide placard on the front wall of the property. Perhaps overly influenced by this strong branding, I felt that I was getting to know Ben already.
In the earth driveway to the side of the house, we approached a man who was working on a car: a blue 1955 MG Midget, up on blocks awaiting new brake parts. And yes, raising his head from under the bonnet he acknowledged that he was indeed Ben The Beekeeper. Smiles and nods replaced a handshake, as Ben’s palms eloquently expressed a devotion to engine mechanics.
Shoes off as we entered the house, passing straight into a living room dotted with Hindu artefacts and decorations. But most imposing was the 10-day old 3-foot wide flat-screen TV, tuned in at an “outside” volume level to the BBC News channel. Throughout our 40-minute chat we would learn much about bajan beekeeping principles, Ben’s views on the ethnic tensions between Barbadians and Guyanese on the island and a good deal about developments in the Ukraine crisis.
I presented my credentials, a black-and-white Apis blog card, as Ben wiped his hands and I explained to Ben my intention to write a post about our meeting. Having asked for, and received, Ben’s permission to take notes and photographs, I set to chronicling our encounter.
Ben’s family owned the biggest beekeeping business in “British“, Ben insisted, Guyana, Rajkumar Apiaries, with over 300 hives, and his brother Ahnand Rajkumar MSc A.Ag is a beekeeper in Wellesley, Ontario. Ben had been in Barbados since 2000, since which time many Guyanese had migrated towards Barbados. Ben had also learnt some of his Barbados beekeeping skills from one of his mentors – the great Rudy Gibson.
With his main apiary located in Christchurch, near the main Grantley Adams airport, Ben kept both urban and country bees. Nodding to the MG Midget in the yards, Ben boasted that, with the hood down and a beehive strapped into his front passenger seat, he attracted plenty of attention when tranferring hives between his apiaries. Unfortunately though, Ben had been awaiting a crucial car-part delivery for several hours and so we were unable to leave his home to visit his out-apiary until it arrived. He explained:
“That man told me that he would be here in two minutes when he called me. I asked him whether he meant Barbados time or English time and he just laughed. That was two hours ago and now I’m vex…”
Ben launched into a monologue which referenced his grievances against native Barbadians, which conluded with the phrase: “So who’s the racist now?”. It was to become a familiar refrain. Undeterred, I steered Ben back to the topic which really excited me from our telephone conversation: his cure for varroa.
“All natural“, Ben declared. “No chemicals, you see. It’s tobacco.” Obviously, Ben was no stranger to controversy. “That’s what knocks off the varroa. You plant tobacco in front of your hives, and as the bees fly through the tobacco leaves, the natural power of the tobacco plants gets rid of varroa” said Ben. Well, smoking tobacco is rumoured to discourage mosquitos and midges, I pondered. And the traditional treatment which Bristish beekeepers use against the varroa mite is oxalic acid, which is derived from rhubarb leaves. So why not tobacco ?
“And then, in your smoker, you roll leaf tobacco around dried slices of garlic, long-way down the clove, only long way down the clove, you see, and old onion skins”, Ben confided. “That mixture calms the bees. And for varroa, it’s even better if you add some black pepper. Varroa hates black pepper smoke“.
It may be that such a recipe is a bit too spicy for traditional UK beekeepers’ tastes, but it may be that there is no harm in trying. Obviously, I would advise anyone wishing to follow Ben’s suggestions to first do their own research and satisfy themselves of the suitability of any of Ben’s recommendation for their own bees.
Ben explained that his bees were a “mixed strain” as a consequence of the proximity of other islands, Central America and international transportation. Certainly a touch of “scutella“, the africanised bee, to which he attributed a propensity to sting unprotected flesh without encouragement and speculated that the more ferocious bees from his out-apiary were especially prone to launch themselves against the darker skin of native bajans.
Anyway, back to the bees. Here is a close-up of one of Ben’s bees.
To soothe the disappointment of our scuppered visit to his main apiary, Ben invited us to see the beehives in his back yard. So we walked from the living room, along a corridor and through the kitchen and went out into Ben’s dirt and white-stone-chipped yard.
There we met Pooch, whom Sarah reliably informed me could be termed “an island labrador“, given his miscellaneous parentage. Pooch was very much a guardian in the yard, certainly not a pet allowed to enjoy the interior of the Rajkumar household.
Ben’s hives were simple 11-frame brood boxes, very recognisable to all as beehives. They were arranged higgledy-piggledy against the fence at the rear of his property. Interestingly, all the hive entrances were aligned to face the perimeter. Ben’s home bees mainly forage on “wild flowers and vines” – and I had also observed bajan bees foraging for pollen on Golden Palm blossoms in the cool of the early morning. It was unclear precisely how much honey Ben extracted from an average hive, but he measured his yields in gallons. And, like my own Bermondsey Street Honey, Ben’s honey had completely sold out, so we were unable to buy any to recompense him for his trouble (but at least offering to buy some satisfies beekeeping etiquette).
In Ben’s yard, I noticed that all of his hive entrances faced his perimeter fence. I assumed that this was to get the bees “up” in the air, so that they were not tempted to fly low across Ben’s yard, making life difficult for hanging out washing or other human amenities. “No“, said Ben “I have put them there to stop the rascals from jumping over my fence and into my yard. The bees fly up and into the face of anyone looking over into my yard. And I put these hives are where they have jumped over before. I don’t know why they do that. But they do not like bees and the bees do not like them.” Ben explained in his sing-song, island accent.
“Your first line of bee-fence,” I volunteered.
So these bees in Ben’s home apiary were, along with Pooch, part of Ben’s home security system. Which helped explain the outsize lettering on the front of his house: “BEE-KEEPER 249-5905 237 5991“- this was not so much an advertisement of his services as a warning to potential miscreants. I wonder how many London beekeepers consider their hives as a burglar deterrent ?
A dose of rain slashed down and we retreated to the Ben’s sitting room and the torrent of non-stop world news reporting. We swapped beekeeping tips and stories for a while longer (for those with a lively interest in bajan bees, please see below Ben’s Top Ten Beekeeping Tips, unedited by me). Ben vouchsafed his real name to me: Hemindranauth Rajkumar and ensured, one last time, that I had caught his drift about interracial tension on Barbaos. Yep, I really had hauled it on board. It was time to head home..
As we shook hands, Ben commented to me, with a smile to Sarah, whose feet he had complimented earlier: “You must be a good beekeeper. You have chosen a very lovely Queen“. A gallant parting shot from our thrifty, loquacious, news-hungry bajan beekeeper. “Come and visit the Bermondsey Street Bees, whenever you’re in London“, I said, as we waved farewell to Ben and his bees.
In the time since our arrival, a tropical shower had washed over Carrington Village, the conflict in Ukraine was lurching inexorably forwards and Ben’s car-part delivery had still not arrived. But the bees were busy, though, hither and thither.
So my Caribbean adventure was not quite along the lines of Drake or Raleigh; no swashes were buckled, no timbers were shivered and, as far as I am aware, the King of Spain’s beard remained unsinged for the duration of our visit. But this small expedition had brought me into contact with an urban beekeeper located over five thousand miles away from my own apiaries and with very different beekeeping methods from mine.
It just goes to show that the world’s a big place – and that there’s room for us all.
Ben The Bajan Beekeeper’s Top Ten Tips (NB: These are unedited and may not represent best practice for U.K. beekeeping – DYOR)
- Position tobacco plants in front of your hives. The bees will have to fly through them and the perfume of the tobacco plant will separate the varroa mite from the bee.
- A good, calming smoker fuel is produced by wrapping leaf tobacco around dried garlic and onion skins.
- To make this smoke effective against varroa, add black pepper to the mixture.
- Add Terramycin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, to bee-feed to produce strong, healthy bees.
- Swarm-trapping and clipping Queen’s wings are the most effective methods of swarm control.
- When moving hives small distances, use cleaning fluids to wash away to hive-smell in the old location and the bees will not return to it.
- To maximise honey production, use an 11-frame brood box with only 10 evenly-spaced frames in it above the brood box (without a queen excluder), but below a super. The bees will draw extra-long cells, which the queen will not lay in and which will hold more honey.
- Use canvas gloves to manipulate bee-hives. These offer protection and allow your hands to breathe. Nitrile gloves make your hands too sweaty.
- Old, dark comb will give you dark honey. Fresh wax foundation or new comb will give you a light honey.
- Bee-hives are a great way of protecting your property against wall-hopping interlopers.