Tom Hebert is originally from Wisconsin but has lived and done beekeeping in Honduras for the past 25 years. He uses mainly top bar hives to manage the ornery Africanized bees he has to deal with there. His diverse range of beekeeping experiences also goes from teaching top bar hive beekeeping in Honduras and Jamaica to having worked with a commercial apiary of 2,000 Langstroth hives in Wisconsin.
Kaat Byrd: How did your story with the bees begin?
Tom Hebert: My beekeeping journey started when I joined Peace Corps after I finished the university. The organization offered me a position in Honduras with their beekeeping program. Honduras was exactly what I wanted—beekeeping not really.
At that time, I thought of Peace Corps as just a way to really learn Spanish. The two-year stint would also help me get familiar with the culture and people that I wanted to focus on when I would finally use the print journalism and Latin American Studies majors I had studied. Finally, I would be doing some good for the world.
If bees would get me to Honduras, then so be it.
Before this, my only experience with bees was as a young boy growing up in central Wisconsin. And it wasn’t actually with “beekeeping.” My brothers, sister and I would play on the lawn and a bumble bee would start to buzz around our heads. We would all “freeze” and not move until it went on its way.
The next closest thing to beekeeping was having peanut butter and honey sandwiches. This was our main afterschool snack when we got home. There always seemed to be a jar or bear of honey in the cupboard, half crystalized. But there is nothing better than combining it with peanut butter when you come home hungry and want something immediately.
So, Peace Corps accepted me to their Honduran beekeeping program, based more on my knowing some Spanish and having some agriculture experience (I grew up in rural Wisconsin and would work on my uncle’s dairy farm during the summer). Most of my fellow beekeeping volunteers, in fact, were what we called generalists. This meant no specific beekeeping experience. Peace Corps gave us extensive training however.
But life always throws a wrench into your plans and messes everything up—sometimes for the better. Honduras helped me to find the love of my life—my wife Sofia. It gave me a family—her three children. It also helped me to find another love—beekeeping. All three were totally unexpected. My journalistic aspirations got set off to the side.
These little hard-working insects earned a place in my heart, but also the idea of the benefits they could bring to people. This included myself. There is great need for Hondurans to improve their incomes and thus their lives. Beekeeping has this ability for many of them.
KB: What is your focus and goal as a bee guardian?
TH: Beekeeping is an economic activity for me. The idea is that the bees provide me with at least a supplemental income. As I mentioned earlier, the economic situation of Honduras is not good. Even a full time job often leaves one budgeting their money extra carefully just to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, I was never able to make the leap into doing beekeeping full time. I took a job as the fifth and sixth grade teacher in the local English-Spanish bilingual school. A paycheck is there at the end of every month.
Beekeeping became a secondary activity, but it remains first as far as passion goes. The bee work gets done on weekends, vacation days and after classes.
KB: How does the local environment shape your work?
TH: The environment in terms of climate and geography does not really cause extreme challenges. Being in a tropical area, there really are no major concerns during the dearth period. Large strong established hives can usually survive without supplemental feeding (although they may come into the new season on the small size). There always seems to be at least a bit of something blooming. The climate does not have the extremes that notably affect the hives of northern beekeepers.
My work is shaped more by the economic environment of Honduras—the economic challenges that one faces. Honduras is not a rich country. Well-paying jobs are few and far between. A person usually lives from pay check to pay check (if you’re lucky enough to have steady work.) There never seems to be extra money, especially to invest in something like beekeeping. Buying the equipment is expensive.
Over the years as a Peace Corps volunteer the idea kept growing about staying in Honduras with my wife and becoming a full-time beekeeper. She agreed with me. Going back to the States with her and the children would always be an open option if things wouldn’t work out in Honduras.
But when it came time to leave Peace Corps and set out on my own, the reality really set in. I learned firsthand about the situation of the people I had been working with during Peace Corps. How could I support my family with beekeeping if I didn’t really have the resources to invest in the needed equipment?
I wanted to start with the best system, which meant for me at that time movable-frame Langstroth boxes. The truth, however, was that Langstroth hives were simply too expensive.
I couldn’t justify spending that much money when I had more immediate concerns of putting food on the table and paying for school expenses. And I certainly couldn’t justify spending money on all the extras that go with these hives so the bees could be managed as they were intended.
I was now put in the very shoes of the people I had been helping as a volunteer.
So, the obvious alternative was to put into practice one of the things I had been promoting—the top bar hive. It’s a simple economic system for managing bees. It can be used as a stepping stone to eventually move into Langstroth hives or it can turn out to be your hive of choice.
I ended up making much of my own equipment to make things even more affordable, including my smoker, wax foundation and even my veils. My high school shop class in carpentry proved to be very useful.
I became a frugal beekeeper, but out of necessity.
This whole situation happened again later when I worked for several years with a commercial beekeeper back in the States. It was seasonal work—the seven months during the bee season. The idea was to make enough money to live on while in Wisconsin, send some back home to support the family during those same months, and to also save enough for the months I would be back in Honduras.
There I was, working with 2,000 hives—that belonged to someone else. I wanted some of my own, just to putter around with on the weekend. Maybe I could even make a bit of extra money.
But I was back in that same post-Peace Corps situation. I couldn’t justify spending a lot of money on expensive Langstroth equipment. There were other priorities for my salary.
So, I set up a dozen top bar hives using free material.
I have nothing against Langstroth hives. They are designed to produce honey in an effective way. It is the best design for migratory beekeeping and for pollination of crops. I’ve worked plenty with them, both in Honduras and in Wisconsin.
But the truth is that there needs be an alternative—not only for people in developing countries, but also for people in the United States.
Over all these years I’ve come to believe in top bar hives and all the benefits they possess. And those beliefs have just grown stronger over the last 25 years. Langstroth hives may be the hives of choice for most people, but top bar hives definitely have their place in the beekeeping world.
KB: What threatens your (work with the) bees and how do you work with these threats?
TH: The biggest threat, or maybe “challenge” is a better word, is having to work with Africanized bees. Everything has been totally Africanized in Honduras since the 1980’s. They are what we have to work with so I had to find the ways to deal with them and take advantage of them.
I manage them the way I get them, which is usually by catching them with swarm traps that I hang in trees. I haven’t been able to invest time into breeding them for more docile traits—the time commitments with my teaching job doesn’t allow it. I don’t do requeening either. There really are no commercial queen breeders here. These are pure Africanized bees as nature is evolving them.
So, I’ve had to learn how to manage them; learn when I can do intensive work or when I shouldn’t even touch them.
Their temperament is very variable. Sometimes you can work with them without too many difficulties, and other times you don’t even want to think about touching them. They can get very defensive, especially during the dearth period on a cloudy day.
The upside is that they can produce very acceptable quantities of honey. They are also very hygienic and resistant to disease—this is not a worry for me.
It’s a love-hate situation. I take the good with the bad.
KB: What do you believe is the key element for a healthy and strong apiary?
TH: Natural beekeeping, as much as possible anyways. I do it de facto. I don’t usually have the money to spend on expensive mite treatments nor do I need to spend it.
I start most my hives by catching swarms. I set up the hives in a good home (as in the boxes) and in a good location. I keep an eye on them and do as much management as possible (my job as a teacher often limits this).
Basically, it is a very hands-off style of beekeeping. My monetary investment is small. My management is minimal. The bees give what they want in terms of honey. It is basically pure profit. It is style that works for me and my lifestyle at this moment. It’s a secondary activity for me (but again, first in passion).
This means the bee hives that are the strongest survive year after year. The weak hives don’t. Each year I should have more hives with good survivability characteristics.
Some people may criticize me for not putting in the extra effort to keep a hive alive. Here in Honduras, however, there is an abundance of wild hives and swarms. I don’t see bees being threatened. It’s a characteristic of the Africanized bees. These wild colonies are more of a nuisance. I don’t lose sleep over losing a hive every now and then.
And I also contribute to the wild population when my own hives swarm.
KB: What are you working on right now?
TH: I mentioned earlier that I studied print journalism in the university. At that time, I wanted to work for a newspaper or magazine. Even though this idea got set off to the side when I went to Honduras with Peace Corps, this desire to write has always stayed there in the back of my head.
I finally made a commitment to myself several years ago to seriously begin writing again. I started a blog, “Musings on Beekeeping,” as the vessel for sharing my thoughts. Bees are my passion. What better topic to write about than your passion. I’ve had a wide variety of beekeeping experiences and the teacher in me wanted to get them out to other beekeepers.
I also have a companion blog in Spanish, “Reflexiones Sobre Apicultura.” I try to share my experiences as much with the English-speaking world as the Spanish-speaking world where I now live.
I’ve written a couple small books about beekeeping and have ideas for several others. I want to take my blog to the next level so I can offer these to beekeepers.
My actual beekeeping is at a level that I’m not thinking about changing. About 75 hives is a good number for me.
However, I would like to venture into the world of keeping stingless bees. There are a large variety of native stingless bees in Honduras. It’s a tradition that goes back to the time of the Mayas. They would keep one variety in log hives and use the fermented honey in their rituals.
It is also a tradition that has been disappearing. But in the last couple years I’ve begun to see different organizations and people in Mexico and Central America that have been promoting stingless bees and trying to revitalized this aspect of beekeeping.
KB: Who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
TH: One thing that has been inspiring me is the ability to teach different aspects of beekeeping in Jamaica as a volunteer with Partner of the America’s Farmer to Farmer program. I was contacted by Yerba Buena Farms, located on the north coast of the island. They had the desire to bring a more natural beekeeping to Jamaica using top bar hives. I went as their first Farmer to Farmer volunteer and have now made four trips to the island, spending the month of July when I have vacation from my school job.
It has been another opportunity for the teacher in me to share my passion for beekeeping. The topics for the workshops have been really varied: top bar hive management, top bar hive construction, pollen traps for tbhs, simple cement molds for making wax foundation, homemade smokers, bookkeeping for beekeepers, and experimenting with alternative construction materials for tbh boxes. During my last visit, I was able to put all these together in an exhibit for Jamaica’s island-wide agricultural show.
KB: Can you share one of your favorite bee stories?
TH: Something that comes to mind is from a recent post on my blog about bees in my town’s cemetery. I’ve been required to do beekeeping several times in the cemetery.
The graves in the cemetery are usually above-ground mausoleums. As they get old they tend to crack. This is especially the case with the entrance plugs. This gives the bees a chance to enter and establish their colony.
Occasionally you will find a colony of Africanized bees but usually it’s the small stingless bees that are native to Honduras. If you look carefully, it’s easy to find their entrance tubes sticking out of cracks.
It’s the Africanized bees that usually cause the problems and require my services.
Many a year ago, a guy, who had a bit too much to drink, decided he wanted to rob some honey from a colony in one of the mausoleums in the town cemetery. This tomb had to be more than 50 years old. A colony of Africanized bees had moved into it. He pulled down the entrance plug of this old mausoleum, which had cracked all the way around, but only got all stung up before high tailing it out of the cemetery. He left empty handed.
I was contacted to see if I could help. The colony had been causing problems anyways by stinging people when they would go to clean around the graves. Now it was opened.
It was a big colony and the first comb was right in the entrance of the grave, forming a wall of bees and wax that went from the top to the bottom. It was a bit bigger than two deep frames in size. There were about five of these before I got to the wooden casket. Some smaller combs continued over that.
Two Langstroth boxes got filled with brood comb and bees. This old comb eventually got weeded out as the bees filled frames with new comb. The honey got dumped.
It was unnerving for me to go into a grave like this. But at the same time a beekeeper may occasionally be required to do this type of community service—in a place like Honduras anyways.
On a recent visit to the cemetery I found another mausoleum colony. I don’t think I will go looking for the family of this newest one in order to ask them if I can remove it. But I suspect, if they come looking for me, I’ll say yes.
You can read some other stories about my beekeeping adventures in a cemetery on my blog.
KB: A piece of advice for rookie bee guardians?
TH: Don’t get locked into the idea that there is only one way to do beekeeping. When seeking advice, some beekeepers can get very adamant about there being only one acceptable method for managing bees. They’ll say it’s the only way to do beekeeping.
Keep an open mind. The hive options and management styles vary greatly. Research the alternatives and then do what is best for you and for the bees. There is no one right system to use. Each has their pros and cons. Each new beekeeper needs to look at his or her situation and decide what to use and what to do.
For example, top bar hives are generally recommended for more natural beekeeping but Langstroth hives also can be managed more naturally by changing some of the normal practices used with them. Top bar hives are much more economical to begin with but Langstroth hives usually earn you more money in the end.
I’m a big believer in finding functional alternatives since that was what I had to do to start beekeeping.
But always try to keep the health of the bees at the center of what you do. They are going to make you honey or pollinate your crops, not the boxes and other equipment.