Beekeepers abuzz over proposed regulations

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Khafre Pilgrim prepares a smoker before going to his hives at his Five Rivers, Arouca farm. PHOTO BY ROGER JACOB

PROPOSED changes to TT’s beekeeping legislation, the Beekeeping and Bee Products Act, are causing much more than buzz among local beekeepers.

The local beekeeping and honey industry boasts approximately 500 registered beekeepers and 150 independent beekeepers with the All TT Apiculture Co-operative Society (ATTAC) estimating over 10,000 hives across TT.

The TT Beekeepers Association (TTBA) estimates that local consumption of honey accounts for an estimated $100 million in revenue annually.

The amendments proposed by Minister of Agriculture Kazim Hosein have been on Senate’s order paper since November 2023 and are currently listed as a motion.

These changes pose significant challenges for beekeepers, who view them as a potential threat to their livelihoods and the sustainability of the local honey industry. The new regulations could stifle an important sector, create barriers that discourage new entrants, and jeopardize the integrity of locally produced honey, which is world-renowned for its purity and quality.

These challenges led Khafre Pilgrim, a 27-year-old beekeeper from Five Rivers, Arouca, to voice his concerns on social media. Pilgrim’s passion for beekeeping began when his family discovered a swarm in a cherry tree at their home.

“I didn’t get to see what they looked like, so when I got home my mom told me about it. I kind of YouTubed it at the time and I saw what they looked like and from there on I just kind of fell in love with bees,” he explained.

This fascination led him to research beekeeping and eventually buy his first equipment. He started his business, Pharaoh Apiaries, by buying bees from a respected local beekeeper, Mr. Benjamin, to start his own apiary (a colony or a collection of two or more colonies of bees in hives).

“I bought colonies (a hive containing bees or a queen bee with the necessary number of drones and worker bees) from him alone to start, and this year I bought a few more from another beekeeper.”

What began as a hobby has now become a full-fledged business, with Pilgrim now managing 40-50 colonies across his apiaries in Lopinot, Arouca, and Williamsville in south Trinidad.

Honey production can be highly variable, influenced by factors like hive location, weather, and the availability of nectar-producing trees.

Khafre Pilgrim shows a hive that was removed from a home.PHOTOs BY ROGER JACOB

“Sangre Grande, Blanchisseuse, Toco…Those kinds of places have trees that have a high volume of and that more or less dictate the whole production,” Pilgrim said.

In 2023, Pilgrim’s 25 colonies, containing approximately 1.6 million bees, produced two barrels of honey and between 50 and 70 pounds of beeswax, even with less-than-ideal weather conditions. This yield has an estimated value between $57,500 and $109,100 depending on whether the products are sold wholesale or retail.

Pilgrim pointed out that most of his income is reinvested into the business.

“The numbers I’m giving you there is probably going to look like some great numbers, but when you add it back up, most of that money goes back into the beekeeping operation.”

Pilgrim hopes to become a full-time beekeeper, saying, “The start-up cost is the largest, but as you go along, your profit margin tends to get a little bit bigger. Maybe in a couple years, I’ll be making better money where I could do beekeeping full-time.”

Pilgrim’s operation has doubled over the last year and now boasts three million bees.

“For beginner beekeepers, the overhead cost (of beekeeping) is incredible, because for the first three years, I didn’t make any money at all. Most of my salary and savings actually went into the business.”

One of his frustrations is with a change to the apiary registration process.

The existing legislation says that all apiaries must be registered with failure to register attracting a $400 fine. The amendment now adds a $600 fee for registration or renewal and increases the fine to $100,000.

The certificate of registration would be valid for three years. Beekeepers must apply to renew their registration at least one month before their previous registration expires.

Pilgrim sees this registration fee as unfair and emphasized the high initial costs for beginner beekeepers.

“The $600 fine (registration fee) on beekeepers seems prejudiced and it seems like an attack, solely because no other farmer has to pay a registration.”

He added, “If every other farmer doesn’t have to pay, why should I have to pay the Government extra money just to keep bees?”

In a phone interview with Newsday, Marlon Cowie-Clarke, past president of the TTBA, and Terrence Julien, president of ATTAC, agree.

Julien believes the $600 registration fee is “onerous to new beekeepers,” with Cowie-Clarke adding, “If you’re going to charge, then charge the entire agricultural industry to register.”

Proof of tenancy or land ownership is required for registration, Pilgrim believes this makes it difficult for many and prohibitive to poorer farmers.

“The poor man wouldn’t even think of starting beekeeping because he wouldn’t have the means to do so.

“If we are trying to develop agriculture and production, there must be room for the lowest in society to get into the industry.

“They will not have the land, the deed, the ownership, to start this thing, so then you effectively remove one option for the poor man to alleviate poverty.”

Current legislation says that bees must be kept in movable frame hives but does not specify a timeframe. The existing fine is $400, however, the amendments propose a timeframe for compliance of 14 days and increases the fine to $100,000.

Beekeepers believe this is impractical and harmful to bee populations. “The life cycle of a worker bee is 21 days. It would likely kill half of the larvae to move it to the moveable frame,” explained Cowie-Clarke. The TTBA’s recommendation is to extend the timeframe to six weeks to minimize the negative impact on hives.

Bees gather on the outside of Pilgrim’s hives at his Five Rivers, Arouca farm.

The proposed amendments now also specify land setbacks, saying apiaries housing Africanized bees must be at least 200 meters from the nearest residence or animal facility and 50 meters from property boundaries. Given that TT’s bee population is exclusively Africanized bees, beekeepers argue that these measures unfairly target managed apiaries rather than addressing the real issue of wild bee populations.

On April 1, an event at the Palmiste Park, San Fernando, was shut down after four people were repeatedly stung by wild bees and taken to hospital. Beekeepers believe that this change is aimed at preventing people from being stung by the more aggressive Africanized bee population.

Pilgrim said, “The public is very antsy because of the whole Palmiste incident.” “There have been no deaths by managed apiaries. The deaths come from wild bees. It’s a trick question. We only have Africanized bees. Only. Exclusively.

“Incidents like Palmiste Park, they were not our fault, and for us to get the blame and for people to justify the legislation, saying that it would help to decrease the bee-sting incidents. All it would help to do is decrease a viable industry and a viable option for the poor man. We can’t control the wild bees.

“Because Trinidad is a small country, the land space is minimum. The new suggestion in terms of the distance from the nearest neighbor, that could be a little bit more flexible.” Potentially, the most significant proposed change in the new legislation would open TT’s borders to importing honey, which is currently prohibited.

The amendment would allow those with a permit to import honey from a list of pre-approved countries. All Caricom member states are on the list of approved countries. Local beekeepers are concerned that there are no quality standards for imported honey.

“The people of TT cannot know what’s in the honey that they’re eating,” said Pilgrim. “Right now, if it’s a local beekeeper, and you really need to prove what’s in the honey, I can carry you directly to the honey producers and I can give you a direct sample of the honey from the hive. So you know exactly what is in it.”

“Why would you import an inferior product when you have a superior product produced in your country?” In a phone interview with Newsday, former minister of agriculture Clarence Rambharat expressed similar concerns.

“In my time (as minister), I’ve seen imported honey on the shelves and made complaints to both the Inspector of Apiaries and the public health people at the Ministry of Health.

“Sometimes it is not honey. We’ve done some testing of products taken from the shelf and they are non-compliant in terms of what could be labeled honey.” Rambharat warned that opening the market without restrictions could make it difficult to control illegal imports, particularly from Venezuela, referencing the porous border in southwest Trinidad.

He concluded, “Once we are allowing the import, then a lab and testing regime with standards are going to be absolutely necessary, because you have to be able to compare.” Julien highlighted another concern: “A major concern is the safety of our bees. With the unchecked introduction of honey, you will be exposing the whole industry to diseases we are unable to control.”

One of the most concerning diseases is American Foulbrood (AFB). Caused by the spore-forming bacterium, Paenibacillus larvae, AFB kills bees in their larvae stage. “Everything – hives, frames, and infected bees – must be burnt if (AFB) is confirmed by testing,” Julien said.

An expert with over 30 years of experience in the beekeeping industry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, emphasized the serious risk of disease.

“The country and the environment have been protected from diseases by the legislation enacted in 1935. If honey from the sources mentioned brings in such diseases, it will destroy our managed colonies.

Due to the natural tendencies of bees to swarm, the disease will spread to wild colonies, eventually decimating them. This would lead to significant problems with pollination of commercial crops and, ultimately, food security.”

Beekeepers like Pilgrim are calling for a more balanced approach that takes into account the practicalities of beekeeping while ensuring public safety. They believe a collaborative approach between policymakers and beekeepers is essential to developing regulations that will protect consumers, promote local honey production, and ensure the long-term viability of beekeeping in TT.

Rambharat, the TTBA, and ATTAC agree that a consultation related to the proposed amendments took place. The TTBA and ATTAC are of the opinion that beekeeper’s concerns were not considered prior to the amendments being created. Details on the consultation are unclear. Repeated attempts to contact the Ministry of Agriculture, Minister of Agriculture, Chief Technical Officer (Agriculture) Denny Dipchansingh, and Minister in the Ministry Avinash Singh for information have gone unanswered.