Searching for a solution: Trainee supervisor at the Parks Department Quincy Burgess, left, and beekeeper Randolph Furbert along with a number of Government agencies, are looking for a solution to the disease that is decimating bee populations in Bermuda. *Photo by James Whittaker
Searching for a solution: Trainee supervisor at the Parks Department Quincy Burgess, left, and beekeeper Randolph Furbert along with a number of Government agencies, are looking for a solution to the disease that is decimating bee populations in Bermuda. *Photo by James Whittaker
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If a bee dies in Crawl, there will be no pumpkin pie in Somerset this Thanksgiving.

That’s the ‘chaos theory’ that has seen farmers throughout the island feel the repercussions of a killer epidemic, decimating Bermuda’s bee populations.

No honey no money is the simple equation for beekeepers like Randolph Furbert.

No bees, no local food is the potential impact for the rest of the island.

Farmers who would normally have hauled in 50 truck loads of pumpkin at this stage in the season are reportedly down to just two.

So next time you go to swat a bee, think twice.

Nature’s farmers

The insects — which pollinate flowering vegetables like pumpkin, squash and cucumbers — are nature’s farmers.

And they are dying out in record numbers.

For Mr. Furbert, who maintains more than half of the island’s bee hives — estimated at around 375, it is heartbreaking. At his property in Hamilton Parish he has around 100 ‘dead’ hives stacked in a neat pile.

“My only question is ‘do I have a bonfire now or wait until November 5,’” he says.

The dead hives are stacking up across the island. Out of 270 inspected by the Department of Conservation Services earlier this month, 159 were dead.

For a beekeeper the outbreak is equivalent to the foot and mouth epidemic that saw pyres of cattle burned across the English countryside in 2001.

More than half the island’s bees have been killed by ‘Varroa destructor’ mites that feed off their blood and spread disease throughout the hive.

Similar die-offs have already occurred in the U.S. and Europe with severe consequences for some forms of farming.

Tommy Sinclair, an agricultural officer with Government, said: “For a beekeeper the loss of honey and the money it provides is the immediate issue. The larger picture is the pollination that the honeybee provides.

“Bees are instrumental to the reproductive cycle of a number of flowering vegetables. Farmers are feeling the effects already.

“This year’s pumpkin harvest, for example, is nowhere near the usual level.”

He said Bermuda already produced less than 20 per cent of the food it consumed, relying for the most part on foreign imports.

Mr. Sinclair anticipates that the seasonal embargoes on products like pumpkin designed to protect local farmers, will not be necessary to the same extent this year.

He said the ‘die-off’ was also affecting ‘backyard fruits’ like loquats, avocados and peaches.

A number of Government agencies are looking for a solution. Entomologist Claire Jessey, trainee supervisor at the Parks Department Quincy Burgess and Mr. Sinclair are all involved.

Implications

Efforts to stem the outbreak have so far proved unsuccessful and the experts believe it could be a year before the full extent and implications of the bee die-off are known.

They are not confident that the mites can be eradicated completely but they are hopeful that new methods of controlling the pests, trialled with some success in the U.S., could help counter the problem.

“In the U.S. there are two types of beekeeping —  before Varroa and after Varroa. It has been a patient process but they have started to learn to live with it.”

For Mr. Furbert, who lives and breathes beekeeping and once posed with a ‘beard’ of honeybees clinging to his face, it is time to rethink his career options.

He has been in the business for 38 years, entertaining schoolchildren with demonstrations and selling honey by the jar to dedicated customers at the Honey House in Hamilton Parish.

But he admits: “It has been devastating, heartbreaking really. I do beekeeping for the love of it, but I’m not sure I will continue on this scale. I’m getting older and I was thinking of cutting back.”