From Grass-Roots to Global

Ted takes his home-grown 'Save the Bees' mission to the island of Great Exuma.

There’s a lot of talk about how important honeybees are to the Earth and how bad off we would be without them. More and more focus is being placed on how we must save the bees. But how many people do you know who are actively taking part in that movement, making real changes, doing something about it -- something big?

We do -- a couple of them, actually. They are Ted Dennard of Savannah Bee Company, Tami Enright of The Bee Cause Project, and Catherine Booker of the Exuma Foundation. In 2014, they banded together to make something remarkable happen: They brought honeybees back to the island of Great Exuma Island, Bahamas. That’s right, brought them back. As in, there weren’t any there. None. For a long time.

The results of their re-introducing honeybees to this patch of paradise have had a tremendous impact on not only the bees but the land and the people of Exuma as well. The video above highlights Ted’s recent trip back to Great Exuma to check on the project’s progress, and below is Ted’s first-person account of this inspiring story.
< Back to Part 1: Beekeeping 101 On A Bee-Less Island

Part 2: Bringing Bees To The Island

There are some beekeepers who are in ideal climates to use their beehives to raise queen bees. They work an incredibly technical operation that involves not just breeding queens but also drones and workers. They package up the worker bees in shoe-boxed sized container and the queen in a matchbox-sized one. Both of these wooden “transport vessels” have ventilation screens on two sides. There is no wax or combs that could hide mites or harbor disease. There is only fresh wood, screen and the bees, which hang in a giant mass from the top. Finding the right partner to supply the perfect bees for The Exuma Project proves to be a tough challenge.

We eventually decide on Hawaii as the source of the bees, in large part because the Bahamian Government feels this is safer. I think maybe they have an affinity for another island state, too. The hardest part is still left to achieve -- mite-free and disease-free bees -- and we don’t have any real guarantee of this. Paperwork that says so isn’t good enough. I have to be certain!

The roughly 240,000 lucky honeybees, bound for a life in the Bahamas, wait in the bed of Ted's truck to be loaded into the plane.

Once I receive the 12 Hawaiian queens and 12 packages of worker bees to start the colonies, we implement our plan to make doubly sure we will be traveling mite- and disease-free. A friend and beekeeper with a degree from Georgia Tech, Patrick Wilbanks, helps me “gas” the bees with oaxalic acid, which is a treatment used by beekeepers that kill mites but doesn’t harm the bees.

By the way, these are big packages, each loaded with 5 pounds of workers instead of the regular 2 or 3. This will help ensure we land on Exuma with plenty of bees for each queen. With so many unknowns about how the bees will endure the flight and how well they will acclimate to the island, we want to do everything we can to increase the chance of their survival.

For optimal survival, package bees need to be installed as soon as possible -- within a day or two is best. We have to coordinate the arrival of the bees, which will be hard because sometimes the Hawaiian beekeepers aren’t be able to guarantee they can ship on a certain day, nor can they guarantee Fedex will deliver them to us on time. (Yes, live bees are shipped through FedEx and USPS all the time.)

We have to guesstimate the arrival of bees, plan for a day to treat them with the oaxalic acid, and then have a plane ready to immediately whisk us to Exuma where we will need to quickly install the packages and their queens in each hive. Delta Airlines is not interested in flying live bees anywhere, so I have to go with a private plane option.

The first pilot that we are able to line up just happens to have property down on Exuma. He says he will be flying down from Virginia and will stop in Savannah to load us up before continuing to the island. As the day approaches, I receive multiple emails from the pilot regarding the safety of the bees. To be sure, it’s not for the bees’ safety but for the pilot’s safety from the bees. I joke with him a little, because with a total of more than 240,000 bees on board, I can’t be 100 percent sure none would get out. I offer to supply him with a beekeeper’s veil to make him feel more comfortable. His next email says, “Let me be clear! If there is one loose bee in that plane, we will not fly.”

A brave pilot -- outfitted with a beekeeper's hat and veil -- flies Ted and a plane full of about 150,000 honeybees to the Bahamas in July 2015.

A little later, the pilot sends his last email that says he is not going to do it after all, so we scramble to find a plane that will take us. We rush to find an alternative, but ultimately have to cancel the trip. I end up installing the bees into the hives in our garden here at Savannah Bee. Two months pass before I’m able to try the whole process again.

I bring up this flight predicament to my friend and insurance broker, David Paddison, while having a couple of beers. He has a plane and seems like he’s always up for adventure, and this proves no exception. He says he’ll do it but a couple of his friends will want to come too. Everything seems like it’s lining up again: we coordinate the bees’ arrival, gassing them for mites, a brave pilot, and some excited Exuma beekeepers.

As the sun rises nearly one year to the day of teaching the beekeeping class on Exuma, I meet David, Henry, and Jim at the private hangar with the 12 bee packages. The mood is light and charged with excitement as we load the back seat of the plane with bees. I give everyone a bee veil -- just in case. David’s friends are old college roommates from UGA and they constantly poke fun at one another. Everybody is excited for this bee adventure that also happens to be taking them to the blue waters of Exuma. The bees are loaded inside the small cabin with us, while the fly rods, bottles of liquor, cigars, and the rest go in the wings.

The bees arrive on Exuma ready to meet their new beekeepers and get settled into their new homes. Ted unloads the packages to be transported to properties around the island.
"

Echoing over and over in my head are the concerns that these bees are the reason we are going, and these bees need to be free of mites, free of diseases, and they need to survive and do well for these new beekeepers.

Along with the excitement, I feel a sense of responsibility to deliver these “perfect” bees alive and well. I wonder how they will do in an unpressurized plane. How will it affect them, and will they survive? Honeybees are so sensitive to slight changes in pressure and electromagnetic fields, and the plane ride might just piss them off, not to mention the fact that they are constantly searching for a way out of the cages. Echoing over and over in my head are the concerns that these bees are the reason we are going, and these bees need to be free of mites, free of diseases, and they need to survive and do well for these new beekeepers.

The plane takes off into the morning sun and we get a little bit down the coast when we get word from traffic control to lift the plane up to a higher altitude. They don’t want us to fly low over Jacksonville, FL. The pilot explains that we have a quarter of a million honeybees in this plane and that we don’t want to go any higher. Traffic Control allows us to go further to the east and maintain our current altitude. Three hours later -- and a lot of gawking out the windows over the turquoise waters -- we land at the Georgetown airport on Great Exuma.

The bees look pretty damn good! We open the doors to a blast of hot runway summer heat, and the packages roar to life with the fanning wings of 240,000 bees. Luckily, Catherine has had lots of prior communication with the customs folks, and has already provided the Department of Agriculture permits for importation, so we easily clear customs and pack ourselves in the Exuma Foundation van. Island life begins again with the warm salty wind blowing in the windows.

"

I remind myself to need to slow down and not rush through the building of this new enterprise. This is development work that is ultimately about establishing and strengthening relationships. And it is a one-at-a-time process. When I was younger, I joined the Peace Corps to save the world and I learned that things happen slowly, much like the way a forest starts by the planting of one seed.

From left, Ricky Monroe and Catherine Booker install a hive at the Exuma Foundation in July 2015, while Ted films the momentous occasion.

My idea is to have everyone getting bees meet us at the Exuma Foundation where we will install the observation beehive and the Langstroth beehive. Then they can take their bee packages home to install them themselves. Their idea is to have me come and install each of their packages with them. Of course, I’m happy to go with their approach to installation. I understand it might be a little daunting for them. I remind myself to need to slow down and not rush through the building of this new enterprise. This is development work that is ultimately about establishing and strengthening relationships. And it is a one-at-a-time process. When I was younger, I joined the Peace Corps to save the world and I learned that things happen slowly, much like the way a forest starts by the planting of one seed.

Ricky bonds with a handful of bees while installing a hive.

We begin with everyone watching Catherine and I install the bees at the two Exuma Foundation hives, the observation hive on the wall inside the classroom and the one outside the windows. It’s fun and exciting and a bunch of people gather to watch, even those who are not getting hives. They are surprised to see how docile the bees are. I’m so happy to see the bees are all still alive and delighted how engaged the onlookers are.

Next, we head to Ricky Monroe’s place to get the bees installed in his four hives. Ricky is enthusiastic and makes it a whole lot of fun. I pour big heaps of bees into his hands for some pictures and he’s all smiles. Ricky attended a workshop on beekeeping on Andros Island, Bahamas, and had gotten interested in an octagonal-shaped hive. Bees in this type of hive build comb on dowels threaded through holes in the sides of the hive. I don’t really understand it except that it is more natural, like a hollow tree. The remaining three are Langstroth hives, the kind you see stacked in apiaries along farms in the U.S. Ricky promises he will build his own frames and boxes and really wants to grow this into a business.

Ted installs a hive with Ishmael Cartwright on the Cartwright family property in Exuma.

Next stop is Rosemary Minns’s house, which is one of the most scenic views on this island. Her place sits atop a hill with a porch looking north out over the blue Caribbean waters. She is an avid gardener and wants bees to take part in her bountiful flowers. Catherine and I do the work on these two hives. We have to level them out on a rocky clearing below the house. Rosemary fearlessly stands near us giving us instructions and talking about how excited she is to have bees. It all goes quickly and without a hitch. She vows to plant more flowers for them. What interests me are the thousands of undeveloped acres to the south covered with native bushes and low trees. If they produce nectar, this will be a feast for the bees! Some of it looks like logwood that I know from my Peace Corps days in Jamaica produces great honey.

Stephan and Ishmael Cartwright are the next stop. It is blazing hot on their open, sunny organic farm. Their whole family shows up with excitement and bravery too. One of their two packages isn’t doing so well. For some reason, this one has lost about half the workers, but we put the remaining living workers in the hive with the queen. I make sure they have a place to get water so they can cool off. Honeybees use water to create evaporative cooling in the hive. Ishmael has dug a deep pit that fills up naturally with water, and will work just fine for the bees.

Drenched with sweat, we leave the farm and head to their home about 20 minutes away for some cold drinks and a bite of food. Their house is a beautiful shade of baby blue and is perched on the edge of a shallow bay. A wooden deck extends out over the water, shaded by sea almond trees. Stephan’s daughters are excited to have the bees produce wax for them to use in making beauty products to sell to the tourists.

Stephan Cartwright, far left, and his children proudly pose beside a newly installed beehive on their property in July 2015.
"

Aside from initially feeding the bees to help them build comb, there is nothing to do but wait and see what the bees do. It’s up to them and the Exuma’s plant world.

After this relaxing respite we make one more stop to install bees. It’s near the old airport and belongs to Cherith. Her place is totally wooded by tall shady trees. She has big pens with all manner of chickens. In a clear space, she has a Langstroth hive and a Kenya top bar hive. The top bar hive is one I used often in Jamaica because it is so affordable and easy to build, as long as you get the dimensional ratios right. The bees go in just fine and I can tell Cherith is going to love them. She bakes a lot of bread, and I can imagine all the hot bread with honeycomb that would be happening in her future.

That was it. We had done it. We installed all 12 packages with their queens. Eight of them in Langstroth hives, one top bar hive, an octagonal hive and an observation hive. And they were in five different locations, too. Now only time will tell. We celebrate that night at Fish Fry with beer, rum and lots of grilled food. We find ourselves wishing we had a lot more time to sit back and enjoy.

Nobody knows about nectar flows and dearth periods because nobody on Exuma has any experience with bees. This is a chance to learn about it. I task Catherine with keeping an eye on the observation hive and to record the beginning and ending of the nectar flows. Aside from initially feeding the bees to help them build comb, there is nothing to do but wait and see what the bees do. It’s up to them and the Exuma’s plant world.

Don’t miss out on the rest of this amazing story. Enter your email address and you’ll know as soon as we publish it.