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 2: Bringing Bees To The Island

Part 3

The years go by and I only occasionally hear from Catherine, who sends pictures and videos of different young men and women working in the beehives or catching a swarm. All of it makes me proud. I tell people about the project and how successful it is, but I really don’t know. The contact between Catherine and me is sporadic, mainly a cryptic text or photo. I did once see a picture in an Exuma Foundation newsletter of a group with the caption, “Florida State Bee Inspector and Exuma beekeepers.” The only other involvement I have had is arranging for a real bee scientist, Jennifer Berry, from the University of Georgia to go to Exuma and help teach the people more advanced beekeeping.

I know I need to get back there and see first-hand what has transpired. I don’t know exactly what I will find because up here in the States, beehives come and go without warning. Also, my Peace Corps experience taught me how hard it is to have a project with sustained interest, much less success. Still, the images coming out of there promise the possibility of a “too good to bee true” outcome that makes me want to see it for myself.

Brian Phan, Catherine Booker, Mark Nguyen, and Kelly Enright go over the day's footage while Ted and Rosemary talk about bees on the porch of Rosemary's home.

I figure I’ll see if I can get the band back together and make another trip down there. It has been 3 ½ years since we installed the hives on Exuma. The only one I can coordinate with is David Paddison. He says we can take his plane but that he and his wife will be going with us. I ask my management team if they want to go. CFO Mark Haney, COO Jennifer Ochoa, and Social Media Manager/Photographer Kate Dowdle jump at the chance. Tami Enright, Director of The Bee Cause Project, has been instrumental in installing a second observation hive in another school on Exuma, and she works so hard, that I think she deserves the chance to go down there. It doesn’t take any convincing, and she wants to bring her son, Kelly, a junior beekeeper. The husband of one of my salespeople is in video production, and he and I have spoken about documenting this whole thing for posterity. Again, no convincing necessary, and he begins working with the Bahamian authorities on drone permits and filming permits.

We get it all coordinated and some of us hop on David’s plane while others get a commercial flight. We are all excited to be headed away from our Georgia winter to balmy, tropical Exuma. I’m not at all nervous this time around, but I’m still uncertain of what we are going to find. Only about three hours after taking off, the familiar sight of Catherine greeting us at the airport feels like a homecoming. As we load up tons of gear, she tells us of a meet-and-greet at the Exuma Foundation.

We arrive at the Foundation to an amazing spread of food and drinks all made with honey -- fresh bread, an incredible honey butter, tea sweetened with honey. There are so many people there who are somehow connected to the bees. It’s a good crowd of families and interesting people of all ages. What a wonderful welcome with honey-inspired food and drink as well as the people this project has impacted. Later, we all descend upon Fish Fry for a few drinks and a long waited meal of peas and rice, and roasted fish.

A sign on the nature trail at the Exuma Foundation cautions visitors about the feral bee colony that has taken up residence in an abandoned termite mound.

Apiary Tour

The next morning we drive over to the Exuma Foundation where we are in for another treat, only this time it’s not about the food. We are taken on a tour of the apiary, which, to my delight, has many more hives than the two we initially put there. Then we go to the other apiary created on the back of the lot. Wow! What an amazing apiary filled with brightly colored boxes. An incredible number of bees fills the air -- just masses of bees flying in and out of the hives. There are 14 thriving colonies in this new apiary, and it was all “grown” from the first two hives.

Even better, there are four teenagers tending to the bees, building equipment, and bottling honey and selling it alongside their produce at the farmers’ market. These guys make me almost tear up at the sight of them working the bees and talking about the bees with such reverence and love, saying how they were never really aware of bees -- or any pollinators -- and now they see them everywhere, along with the blossoms they feed on. The Exuma Honey labels are a beautiful blue, like the water that surrounds the island. They even have honeycombs in boxes. This is so much more than I expected when we placed the first hives here years ago. I’m already flabbergasted by the success, and we are only at the first stop on this revisit of the honeybee project.

Next, the elementary school kids are all lined up waiting to show us their interpretive nature trail. So we walk the trail and they teach us about all the edible native plants and their medicinal uses. The highlight is the abandoned termite mound that has a new resident living inside it -- a honeybee colony! Most likely, a swarm from one of the two Exuma Foundation apiaries found its way into this hollow termite mound. This is proof that the honeybees are not just contained in manmade boxes but have gone feral on the island. This is a good step toward ensuring the honeybees are here to stay and do not need beekeepers to thrive.

Next, we drive up to Rosemary’s house atop one of the only hills on the island. It has a commanding view out over the water, as well as toward the back of the island, as far as one can see. Rosemary is a darling of a gentile woman with personal stories rich with history. She doesn’t really go into the beehives but enjoys watching them and providing the flowers upon which they feed.

The view to the south shows wild native flora stretching for miles. There must be an incredible amount of nectar-producing plants because the hives in her yard are stacked impossibly tall, with some requiring a ladder to be able to work the top box. The two hives we initially placed there have blossomed into five towers, and there’s no telling how many swarms have headed out into the thick bushes and trees.

Brightly painted hives at the Exuma Foundation apiary.
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Wow! What an amazing apiary filled with brightly colored boxes. An incredible number of bees fills the air -- just masses of bees flying in and out of the hives. There are 14 thriving colonies in this new apiary, and it was all “grown” from the first two hives.

Surf Time … For Some of Us

Catherine tells us she has lined up a boat and surfboards! Shacara, the IICA Director for The Bahamas, says she wants to go, and so does Mark, our CFO, so he can test his skills on the waves. He has been working out lately and is ready for the challenge because, really, “how hard could surfing be?”

We head to the secret surf spot named for the five people who discovered it by taking the first letter of each of their names. As we pull down to the small sandy cove, we see the boat anchored a few yards off the beach and a stack of surfboards to choose from. We make our choices and pile into the boat. Catherine strikes across the harbor toward a small gap between sheltering islands. She guides the boat through the narrow channel that has a single-lane pass-through for small boats if the tide is high enough. We make it through and around to the outside of the long strip of island that protects the harbor of Exuma from the open ocean waves. It gets quite a bit bumpier on this side as well as a much darker blue as the water deepens. As we near the surf spot, we notice a handful of small boats and about six people sitting out on the swells. We anchor and throw our boards over for the paddle over to the lineup. Shacara declares she is just going to swim around for a while.

After a few failed attempts to catch this finicky wave, I get it figured out and begin to surf, hooting and hollering on the steep drops down the big peak that then quickly stretch out into a low shoulder right before morphing into a breaking wave to the left that eventually leaves me in the crystal clear shallows full of rocks and urchins just below. Catherine and I surf while Mark keeps paddling for wave after wave. (They really are hard to catch.) I can tell he is getting tired already from the effort. It doesn’t take long for unused muscles to get drained of strength from paddling a surfboard. Eventually Mark gets teased into paddling in a little too close as a huge set wave comes in from the outside. He doesn’t see it coming until too late and the huge wave crashes down on him and washes him under the whitewater and into the shallows. He begins to paddle back out but is trying to paddle through the oncoming waves, which, to our horror, keep pushing him back onto the rocks. I’m afraid he is going to be bruised and filled with long, black urchin spines. Eventually he makes it around the oncoming whitewash and back out and around and paddles straight for the boat. He waves from a distance that he is okay, but I’m not so sure.

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Even better, there are four teenagers tending to the bees... These guys make me almost tear up at the sight of them working the bees and talking about the bees with such reverence and love, saying how they were never really aware of bees -- or any pollinators -- and now they see them everywhere, along with the blossoms they feed on.

Members of the Exuma Foundation and Savannah Bee Company sell honey at the foundation's farmers' market.

Ricky’s Amazing Workshop

We head over to see Ricky and his apiaries. The first one is the original site of four hives, but there are now more like 14 hives there. Ricky talks about how he used to be called Ricky but now he has a new name -- Honeyman. Ricky has very big eyes for growing his business, and he wants to show us one of his other apiaries. This one is on a newly built organic farm that has more than 20 hives! They are strewn about the edge of the fields on stands. What’s more is he has a very big shed with a woodworking shop in it.

Ricky shows Ted around his bustling apiary.

There are wooden bee boxes of different sizes stacked everywhere under the roof. Hundreds of frames hang from posts and are stacked inside the empty bee boxes. He has a large pile of nucleus hive boxes for making splits (dividing one hive into at least two more and sometimes three). He has the passion and commitment and a very strong presence. When he speaks, you believe him. He has done even more than he said he was going to do. What a great role model for the kids on the island. I am so proud of what he has achieved, and he inspires in me a wish to emulate what he’s done with the workshop and bees and organic farm. Everyone on the trip is impressed with him.

Mead at Stephan’s

We all road trip to Stephan’s house to see what’s up with him. He has his whole family there. His house is next to what used to be a restaurant, but he has closed it. We are thirsty and hungry, but all he has is a big gallon bottle of mead he made with his honey. We sit out on his deck that hangs out over a very shallow, milky blue bay. It is gorgeous. We drink up the mead and then head into town to get something to eat. As we are leaving, an elderly woman flags us down. I figure she just wants to talk to Catherine because everybody seems to know her. She opens up with, “When am I going to get my beehive?” Then she launches into stories about her chickens. I shouldn’t be surprised. Her inquiry about her hive just shows how far this project has come and is going -- from the young to the elderly and all over this extremely long island.

We meet the rest of our party at a town restaurant called Peace and Plenty. They were exploring islands and swimming with pigs all day while we were running around documenting the bees and the people who have adopted them. We sit at the bar on the deck eating and drinking some well-deserved and much-enjoyed beers while watching the sun set on our last day here. I think about how this thing started as just an idea and how it has grown and taken on a life of its own. It’s more than I could have imagined and it feels incredible. I find myself once again wondering where all the time has gone and wishing for more time to just do nothing on the island but read and swim. By the looks of how well the honeybee project is going, I expect next time I will be able to just mentally check out and relax on the shores of this amazing island.

Honey and honeycomb from the Exuma Foundation hives.
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I think about how this thing started as just an idea and how it has grown and taken on a life of its own. It’s more than I could have imagined and it feels incredible.