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.

Part 1: Beekeeping 101 On A Bee-Less Island

Catherine Booker is Environmental Project Manager for the Exuma Foundation. The Mission of the Exuma Foundation is to enhance the quality of life for the people of the island of Exuma in The Bahamas, both now and for future generations to come, by encouraging and managing gifts for operating, capital, and endowment, by addressing community needs through grant making, and by providing philanthropic leadership. Learn more at http://www.exumafoundation.org/home.html

It’s July 2014. The phone rings and I answer to find Catherine Booker, a friend of mine who is working in the Bahamas. She says the chairman of the foundation she works for wants to bring honeybees to the island of Great Exuma because they have none. Rumor has it there once were beehives on the island, but nobody really knows what happened to them. Catherine asks if I can come down and help figure things out. Well that sounds intriguing, so I load up my bags with the necessities -- several basic Beekeeping 101 sheets and Interesting Bee Facts hand-outs; beginners’ beekeeping books; a complete assortment of unassembled wooden beehive boxes, frames, and covers; as well as a new smoker, veil, and hive tool. With very little idea what I’d be doing, I board a Delta flight to Great Exuma to see for myself what this is all about.

In the 1990s, I did a two-year stint in the Peace Corps teaching beekeeping in Jamaica, so this trip to an island with a different culture and some grass-roots beekeeping development work makes me feel a little nostalgic. But not knowing what to expect, my fears of being underprepared, and the fact that I’ve been in a very narrow routine as a business owner for 15 years gives me anxiety close to knocking on the door of panic attack. The one solid anchor I have is Catherine. She’s a honey-blond woman with a gigantic smile that matches her giving nature, but more than that, she’s just plain cool and laid back. She is a marine biologist who moved Great Exuma to study and protect the conchs.

After a three-hour flight over beautiful ocean, I get off the plane to a blast of blazing Summer heat and get in line with everyone else to go through customs. I don’t know where I’m staying or what to tell the customs inspectors, except that I’m going to be teaching a beekeeping class for the Exuma Foundation. They let me slide through without much holdup. When I walk out of the little concrete building, I find Catherine sitting and chatting with all the taxi drivers. She greets me with a big smile and a hug, and I begin to relax into the easy, slow-paced life of the Bahamas.

We toss my bags into the Exuma Foundation van and head out, warm wind blowing through open windows. As we drive, I play it cool but try to tease out some details about what we’ll be doing, why there are no bees, and who we are teaching. Catherine gives away the bare minimum of what I need to know, and I settle down into the familiarity of an unhurried culture with less worry about outcomes and more “just see what happens.”

A view of the Bahamas from above. For many years -- no one is really sure exactly how long -- the Island of Great Exuma was completely devoid of honeybees until a small group of dedicated individuals brought them back.
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After a three-hour flight over beautiful ocean, I get off the plane to a blast of blazing Summer heat and get in line with everyone else to go through customs. ... When I walk out of the little concrete building, I find Catherine sitting and chatting with all the taxi drivers. She greets me with a big smile and a hug, and I begin to relax into the easy, slow-paced life of the Bahamas.

Catherine points out over the blue water and asks if I see the waves along the small island to the north. She says that is the indicator rock for surf on the other side of Stocking Island. Since we are meeting the group of new beekeepers that evening, she mentions if we hurry, we can squeeze in a quick surf session before teaching the first class. And while I am always game for surfing, it is still hard to let go of the need to get prepared for the first beekeeping group I’ve taught in about 20 years.

We drop off my boxes and bags at the Exuma Foundation building and then meet a friend of hers at a dock. He has surfboards already in the boat, and I quickly change into my suit and hop on. As we speed across the unbelievably clear water, I breathe in the warm salt air, feel the blueness of the sky and sea, and let go of one of many more skins I need to shed. Tropical islands and surfing are at the pinnacle of my joy list, and the session washes me of much of my businessman stress.

That evening, fresh out of the water and still salty, we arrive at the Exuma Foundation building where there is a gradual gathering of what becomes about 12 people ready to learn something about beekeeping.

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That evening, fresh out of the water and still salty, we arrive at the Exuma Foundation building where there is a gradual gathering of what becomes about 12 people ready to learn something about beekeeping. The group is made up of multiple ages and races -- not unlike the makeup of a beehive.

Wearing a beekeeper’s hat and veil, Ted teaches a group of Exumians about beekeeping and the wonders of the honeybee during his first workshop on the island in July 2014.

The group is made up of multiple ages and races -- not unlike the makeup of a beehive. I spread all the equipment, beeswax samples, hammers, nails, handouts, and books on a couple of tables next to me at the front of the classroom. I have a white board to write and draw on. Catherine introduces me, and I nervously begin by telling a bit about my history with beekeeping, along with asking the group a few questions. My inquiries often seem to land on too quiet a bunch, and this group is no different. Am I boring them?! (In hindsight, I believe they were just on island time and not sure of what to expect from me or this class.) Catherine must have coerced at least some of them to attend, and it appears my job is to make beekeeping interesting enough they’ll be compelled to stay involved and follow through with it.

Ted gets into character to teach -- and entertain -- workshop participants.

One thing I am good at is waxing on about how amazing bees and beekeeping are. Once you learn enough about bees, you cannot help but stay intrigued and interested in them. So I increase the volume and passion in my voice. I talk poetically about how honey originates as energy from the sun that is then converted by plants into stored energy in the form of sugars, which is then harvested by bees from the nectary of the flowers and dried from 80% moisture to 17% moisture, finally becoming honey. I give them all a taste of five varieties of honey to demonstrate how each plant species adds its personality to the honey.

I discuss bee biology and how all worker bees are female, essentially undeveloped Queens. I talk about the Queen, who starts out as any other worker larva but is fed royal jelly her whole life, and how it is this incredible substance alone that transforms her into a queen with special anatomy, behavior, and a lengthened lifespan. Next comes pollination and how honeybees must visit two million flowers to make one pound of honey. This means the average hive potentially will pollinate more than 500 million flowers each year. The group asks lots of questions, and then we break for the evening.

The next day we resume with a workshop on practical equipment-building and beekeeping basics. We spend lots of time on frame-building to ensure they are assembled correctly. If frames come apart, the beekeeper can get stung a lot, not to mention the extra work of removing broken frames and replacing them with properly built ones. A beehive also can suffer loss of brood and/or honey due to comb damage from a broken frame. For the last of the classroom work we discuss how to manage a hive. No sense in me belaboring this part, however, because we don’t actually have bees yet.

Attendees of Ted’s first beekeeping workshop learn how to assemble hive boxes at the Exuma Foundation in July 2014.
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One thing I am good at is waxing on about how amazing bees and beekeeping are. Once you learn enough about bees, you cannot help but stay intrigued and interested in them.

The last task is to go to each person’s or family’s land to decide on the best location for the hives. This not only establishes a spot that is best for the bees, but it also helps the wanna-beekeeper to imagine the hive on their own land, which may keep them interested in making it a reality. I really like seeing all the properties and how everyone lives. There is a nice compound with a dock and swimming pool, overlooking the blue ocean. At another place is a small farm, more like a large garden, in the blazing hot sun. Then we travel to the back of the island, where it is low and wooded. Here we visit a the property of a family who raises exotic chickens and sells eggs. So many interesting places and people.

Ted and friend Ishmael Cartwright survey Ishmael’s property for the best location to place some hives. Not only does this establish a spot that is best for the bees, it also gets prospective beekeepers in the mindset of making the project a reality.

At the end of the day, we retire to Fish Fry, a congregation of little huts with kitchens inside and tables outside under an awning. There is beer and rum drinks, too. The specialty is conch, and Catherine, against her environmental standing, recommends I get it. I pass and get the fish and a cold beer, a Bahamian Kalik. Afterwards, Catherine drops me at one of the few local hotels, where I stay in a little cabana. I walk out to the beach and watch the stars over the water and feel more relaxed then I’ve been in a long time.

After way too little sleep, my alarm goes off the next morning, and it’s time to load up and leave the island. I fly home feeling rejuvenated and yet still unsure of how far this project will progress. There are some BIG issues -- like finding bees that are disease-free and mite-free. Seeing as how there is not one place in the world that I know of that doesn’t have mites, I have no idea how I’m going to go about making this happen. Mites are the big issue, but there are also small hive beetles, bacterial diseases, viruses, fungi, and Africanized bees to worry about. If we can’t find honeybees on another Bahamian Island to bring to Exuma, we will have to get the Bahamian Government to approve the importation of foreign livestock. Despite all these challenges, I land in the States a different person than when I left, and the difficult tasks ahead are just that – future to-dos. It would be a while before the hard part of actually getting bees to the island would come to pass.