Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
After all these years of being a beekeeper, a bee colony will hold few secrets for Ahmad Ayoubi (b. 1951). Ayoubi knows exactly what is going on in his sixty hives and when it is the right time to harvest the honey. He grows up in Lebanon, where his whole family keeps bees. But when he leaves for Curaçao at the age of eighteen, nothing suggests that he will follow the family tradition. He starts out on the island as a furniture maker in the furniture store of a Lebanese immigrant. The young, ambitious Ahmad is tempted by the offer from his fellow countryman to leave his native country in the hope of going to the United States one day. He works frantically long hours, from seven in the morning to one o’clock at night. Deep down he knows it is going to work out fine, and in the end that first, tough period pays off in a big way. With his overtime paid out to the last penny, Ayoubi built up a nice little nest egg to start off on his own.
First, Ayoubi hawked his wares on the road. He drives from door to door with his American station wagon. He sells everything: furniture, radios, refrigerators. Business is looking up, and when he is offered a large inventory from a foreclosed shop at a bargain, he seizes the opportunity. In 1975, he opens Muebleria La Belleza. The young entrepreneur from Lebanon becomes successful. After five years, his furniture store is the largest on the island. It goes well for a long time, but after some setbacks, Ayoubi closes the store in 2010. As if it were predestined all this time, he chooses to follow the path of his ancestors. Ahmad Ayoubi becomes a beekeeper. It started by placing a classified in the newspaper. Anyone with a pest of bees can give him a call and he will remove the nest for free. In this manner beekeeper Ayoubi collects one bee colony after another. And he is still doing that now.
“I‘m 71 years old now and I still collect bees’ nests, sometimes eight to nine in one day. At people’s homes, at businesses, in nature. You will find nests in the strangest places, and they can cause quite a bit of nuisance. On the ceiling of the bathroom, for example. Four years ago, I climbed fifty meters high on one of the chimneys of the refinery. When the bees’ nest is at these extreme heights, we usually use a truck with an aerial work platform. The police, the government, Aqualectra, they all have my name and number and call me whenever there is a nuisance.”
“We remove the nest, take the whole bee colony and put it in a hive. We keep the bee population quiet with cardboard and tobacco smoke from a stainless steel can. The bees feel threatened and suck themselves full of honey. Carrying their precious load, they are less aggressive. A bee that stings will die afterwards. I don’t want to kill the bees, but sometimes there is no other way. For example, if the nest is somewhere in the pipes on the refinery site you can’t use smoke. Then I just plug up the hole. Bees often nest in the speakers of a sound system. Then I take the whole speaker with bee population here, in Suffisant, where all my hives are. I then let the hive settle down first.”
“You have to know how to work with bees. I was seven, eight years old and I would watch my brothers, my brothers-in-law, and my uncles in Lebanon at work. That’s how I learnt how to do it. That experience formed my basis when I started as a beekeeper in Curaçao. Over the years, more research has been conducted, and new methods and techniques have been developed. Now, for example, we use a standard hive design from the United States as our basis. The frames are already hung in it. That saves the bees a lot of work. The bees no longer have to look for materials to make the honeycombs. As a result, they produce honey after only three months, instead of seven. I owe a lot to GP doctor Sommer in Barber. He taught me to keep bees in a more modern way, more sophisticated.”
Help! Bees in the bathroom!
Parts of the hives are made from plywood by beekeeper Ayoubi himself. This requires the kind of precision and concentration where his skills as a furniture maker come in handy. He orders the ready-made hives from the United States, but they are expensive. A large two-story hive houses at least 20,000 bees. Each bee is given a specific task at birth, but this can change depending on the conditions in the hive and what is most needed at the time. Ayoubi compares it to the parliament of a country. A group in the colony decides what needs to be done. If more nectar is needed. If it is time for a new queen, or whether there are too few male bees. The work is divided, and every bee sticks to the rules. This is the secret of “honeybee democracy”, the democracy of a beehive.
I take the whole bee colony and put it in a hive.
Contrary to what the name suggests, it is not the queen who decides the ins and outs of the hive. Her children are in charge. Above all, the queen is simply the beemother, “mom,” of the hive. She does nothing but lay eggs, as many as 1,500 a day. Depending on what is needed in the hive, the queen chooses whether to fertilize an egg with the sperm cells stored in her abdominal cavity. She lays the fertilized eggs in the small hexagonal cells; these become the bee females (workers). The unfertilized eggs grow into males (drones) and lie in the larger cells in the honeycomb.
Ayoubi feels, without opening a hive, if there is sufficient honey in it. Only when most of the cells in the combs are neatly sealed it is time to harvest. This happens several times a year and more often in the rainy season, so from November to February. Ayoubi and his co-worker wear a special beekeeper’s suit and use smoke to keep the bees quiet, just to be on the safe side. The bees are not always happy with unexpected visitors and can be a bit irritable.
Smoke pacifies the bees.
The beekeeper’s honey is not processed, nothing is added to it. That is the difference with products from a factory. These often remain liquid and then are heated under great pressure and pressed through fine filters. A beekeeper such as Ayoubi swings the honey cold from the combs and does not give his bees any supplemental food, like sugar water. Not even in the dry season, when flowers are few, and when a hive takes in less nectar and pollen. His honey, Pure Honey De Savaan, is raw, completely natural, and full of healthy vitamins and enzymes.
It always starts with the nectar that the bees bring in. This is stored in the cells in the combs. It is then up to the group of caretakers in the hive, about a third of the bees in the colony, to ensure that the honey supply contains the right amount of water (19%). A process of sucking out the water and drying, he explains. If the honey is good, then the cell is covered with a layer of wax. ‘Well-done’, as Ayoubi calls it. In the dry season on Curacao, the bees may have opened the cells and sucked them dry. That is their right, after all this is the food reserve of the hive and the bees did not lay it up for people to snack on.
I come from a family of beekeepers.
The racks from the hives are hung in a centrifuge that starts to spin. This causes the honey from the combs to swing to the side of the drum and sink to the bottom. At the bottom of the drum is a tap, for draining the honey. Ayoubi also has customers who take the combs from the bee nests. Those are offered in trays. Remains putting the ‘Pure Honey De Savaan’ labels on the bottles and trays and the harvest is ready for sale. The company produces about 1,000 kilos of honey in a year.
Nothing is added to the honey.
Honeybees use a fatty substance with which to build their combs. They use their legs to create the hexagonal cells out of this beeswax in which then honey, and pollen are stored. This wax is known to have anti-inflammatory properties and is a very good substance for all kinds of applications. For example, for rubbing wood furniture with and to make it shine again, or because of its moisturizing effect, in skin care products. Beeswax is used to make candles and people traditionally have used it to fill cavities in their teeth. The wax melts at 65 degrees Celsius and solidifies after cooling down. The combs from the bees’ nests that beekeeper Ayoubi collects are used to produce the bees’ wax. The honeycombs are boiled out. The dirt floats to the top and the pure wax sinks to the bottom. A part of the wax is saved and put back in his hives. The bees will use it to continue building the combs. The rest is offered for sale.
All bees have a single task.