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Beekeeping Case Study (Kenya 7) Julius Melubo, Narok County

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Julius Melubo, beekeeper
Name: Julius Melubo
Location: Esoit Naipor, Narok County, Kenya
Interviewed by: Cornelius Kasisi & Tom Carroll
Interview Date: 13/11/2015
How selected for interview

Julius was proposed as a candidate by the local Ministry of Agriculture because they knew him for many years as an experienced and practical beekeeper. He is a community contact person and has a reputation as someone who loves bees, who earns his income from them, conserves the local environment and encourages people not to cut down trees.

Background
The road from Kilgoris to Sitokas showing the excellent woodland in the area for beekeeping

We sat with Julius to discuss his beekeeping enterprise out of the hot tropical sun in the shade of some beautiful indigenous trees.  We had traveled out from Kilgoris town that morning.  It was perhaps 10 years since we had traveled to Sitoka and major changes to the area were evident. Cornelius and I used to buy honey from Sitoka to supply Baraka Agricultural College.  The honey was always some of the best in Kenya – a beautiful yellow colour with a lovely flavour.  Julius was a little skeptical of the value of research and the benefits of research to the local community but because we knew him well he was happy to discuss his beekeeping with us.

The last time we had visited the area it was much more cut off and hard to reach.   This time around the roads had been graded and land subdivision with barbed wire was evident along the way. Land-use is in transition between pastoralism and settled farming, with trees cut to make way for farming. There is still some wildlife (zebra, antelope and baboons) but their number is diminished. Ten-years ago, lions challenged the night-time groups harvesting honey, but this is unlikely now.

Julius is a married man with two wives and 10 children. Some of his children were still at school while others were grown up and married.   Although beekeeping is traditional in Sitoka, Julius learned about beekeeping in 1993 from a GTZ beekeeping programme that was promoting beekeeping in the area. He also visited beekeeping projects in Laikipia, the National Beekeeping Station (Nairobi) and Baraka Agricultural College (Molo) to learn more about beekeeping.

The Beekeeping Enterprise

Julius owns 26 hives: six Kenya top bar hives (KTBH) and 20 traditional log hives. Eleven were occupied bees at the time of our visit. The KTBHs were bought from Baraka Agricultural College and the traditional hives were made locally. Julius also owns a bee suit, a smoker and a hive tool.

Swarms start to arrive from other areas in March, and occupy empty hives. Bees then swarm from local hives in August and September (when Olkinyi (Maasai language), a plant that provides pollen and nectar, has flowered). Swarms move towards an area known as Mugor.

Julius checks his hives every week. This is just an external inspection to look for the presence of ants (and control them), look at the condition of the hives (if they need repair), to check hives are suspended safely, and to see whether they have been vandalized or attacked by wildlife. The honey badger can be problematic. Julius wraps pieces of iron sheet around the tree trunks to prevent badgers climbing to the beehives. Traditional hives are placed in trees.)

Weak colonies are vulnerable to pests. During the dry season, Julius opens hives to check and control hive beetle and wax moth, and to removed empty combs.

He makes regular inspections when flowers are blooming and bees forage for nectar and start making honey. Unproductive colonies are eliminated by opening the hive and allowing the bees to abscond. If swarm cells are present and the queen is old, she is killed, and a good queen cell is left from which the bees raise a new queen.

There are three honey harvests in a year: June/July, August/September and November/December. In the July, prior to our meeting, Julius had harvested 100kgs of honey from his hives.

During the harvesting of KTBHs, Julius ensures that he is properly protected in his bee suit, and has a smoker ready. This however is applicable only to the KTBH. Harvesting from log hives is done traditionally – there is no use of a bee suit as the hive is hanged/placed in trees.  You cannot freely climb trees in a beesuit and the traditional method uses a lot of smoke and a minimum of clothing.  He harvests and stores honey in clean plastic containers after removing the bees.

After harvesting Julius sieves the honey and packs in plastic jars. He says that this is a more profitable way of selling sell it, emphasising that a quality product leads to a good market and high income. He keeps a sample of honey for teaching and creating awareness about honey.

Honey is also important culturally e.g. in circumcision ceremonies, for making local brew.

There is a market for beeswax.

The income from bees is important to Julius for purchasing clothes, buying household food and for education.

Julius thinks that a good beekeeper is someone who harvests good quantities of quality honey and generates an income from his bees, who owns bee hives and is proud of them, and has passion for the beekeeping work. If he could give advice to his younger self would be to use modern technologies (beesuits, smokers, modern hives) to increase production, and to treat beekeeping as a business.

Challenges

Julius described some of the challenges confronting him

  • The local environment is changing. Charcoal burning is destroying large numbers of trees, reducing forage and contributing to bees absconding. The population of bees is declining.
  • Climate change is affecting the seasons and it not always possible to harvest honey three times each year. This started in 1998, and in 2008 very little honey was harvested due to drought. Rains have become unpredictable, affecting flowering, and drought also causes bees to abscond.
  • Beehives are vandalised and honey is sometimes stolen.
  • Acaricides (that farmers use to control ticks on livestock) and pesticides used on vegetable crops are killing bees.
  • Modern hives like the KTBH are not easily available and are expensive.
  • There are occasional problems with stinging. Julius mentioned one case in which a farm animal which was stung to death because it was sick and could not run away.
  • There are challenges in the collective marketing of honey, with individuals selling honey to middlemen at low prices, for cash.
Beautiful countryside is under threat from the breakup of group ranches and barbed wire is now appearing
Wildlife is still visible in the area but for how long more?
Group Beekeeping

There are five beekeeping groups in the area (Sitoka, Nyakwer, Oloshur, Mogor and Kuyukui). Julius is a member of Sitoka bee group comprising of 15 members, all of whom are men. There is unity among the members and they have planned to market their honey collectively. But there are challenges to group membership, including problems with collective marketing. Collective marketing by groups is based on members selling all their honey together, bulking up so there are adequate volumes to attract good prices from reliable buyers. Julius explained that this strategy is compromised by middle-men buying honey from individuals for immediate cash, at lower prices. When a proportion of beekeepers sell individually they undermine the market because supply is not constant, and volumes are insufficient to attract buyers who travel further and pay more for larger volumes. This has a knock-on effect among the beekeepers themselves. They are reluctant to invest further in beekeeping as hives are expensive, the market is unreliable and prices are poor. This reinforces a culture of sticking to traditional beekeeping methods.

Julius is involved in local conservation efforts such as planting bee forage plants and encouraging people to stop bush burning. He and his fellow beekeepers are not happy about the extent of forest destruction locally.

Key learning points:

Julius seems to be a good beekeeper and an active member of his group; and there are several lessons to learn from him.

  • He is building his knowledge and skills through observation and experimentation. He understands the seasons and knows that bees migrate from other places at the start of the season, and then some migrate away again later.
  • He prevents honey badger damage by fixing strips of iron sheets around tree trunks.
  • He checks his hives weekly for problems in the apiary.
  • He has a good management system that includes regular opening of hives to:
  • remove old comb, and keep the hives clean
  • control wax moth and hive beetle.
  • get rid of poor colonies
  • control swarming.
  • He struggles with some of the local problems of vandalism and honey thefts, and bee deaths from pesticide poisoning.
  • He is keeping bees as a business:
  • he has found it profitable to sell clean, well-presented jars of honey,
  • he sells his beeswax.
  • He recognises that climate change and the loss of trees is affecting honey production.
  • He understands that group marketing is a critical issue for profitability among group members, but that short-term financial needs result in members selling at lower prices and compromising development of the group.
Cattle farming is replacing the wildlife which was once common in the area.
A final comment:

One particular thing stands out from this interview – the extent to which the whole area is under serious environmental pressure. In the past ten-years new roads have opened-up the area: livestock is replacing the wildlife; fencing, tree cutting and cultivation are changing the landscape; and pesticides are being used. Although people like Julius are strong advocates for the conservation of their local resources, they need support. This is an area ABRC would like to address, by expanding beekeeping work in Narok, in order to enhance the livelihoods of local people and counteract pressure on the local environment.

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Beekeeping Case Study (Kenya 6) Nixon Ole Kamwea & son Harun Parsoi, Narok County

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Nixon Ole Kamwea (left) and Harun Parsoi in front of their Langstroth beehives at Ololulunga
Name: Nixon Ole Kamwea and his son Harun Parsoi
Location: Ololulunga, Narok County, Kenya
Interviewed by: Cornelius Kasisi & Tom Carroll
Interview Date: 12/11/2015
How selected for interview

Nixon was identified as a good beekeeper by Ewasio Niro South Development Authority  (ENSDA).  He was selected because of his keen interest in both bees and the environment.

Tom Carroll ABRC, Nixon Ole Kamwea , Cornelius Kasisi ABRC and Harun Parsoi at the family home in Ololulunga
Background

We met with Nixon and his son Harun at his farm in Ololulunga, Narok county.  Father and son, from the Massai community, work together on bees.  We visited the family apiary site and observed the hives which were well maintained, clean and well shaded.  Nixon has two apiaries – the first with 13 hives and the second with 5 hives.  Fourteen hives were yellow painted Langstroths and the remaining four hives were top bar hives.  Unfortunately three other hives had been stolen.  Nixon and Harun were each equipped with a beesuit and a smoker and had access to a group owned centrifugal extractor if they needed.  Some of the hives were received for free as part of a project and others were bought at half price (2,500 Ksh) also with project support.  In fact three years before our meeting 300 Langstroths were given to the local bee group of which Nixon and Harun were members.  There was no follow-up support after the hives were donated however and the group ended up splitting up the hives.

After visiting the apiary we adjourned to the family compound which was adorned with beautiful trees and shrubs.   Nixon and Harun impressed us with their knowledge of local trees and shrubs.  Chairs and a table were brought for us to sit on as we talked.  We sheltered from the tropical sun in the shade of a beautiful yellow stemmed acacia.  Nixon appeared to be a man in his sixties and his son perhaps in his mid-twenties.

Nixon told us that his grandfather had had bees and he was interested in keeping up the traditions of his ancestors.  Nixon had worked in the tourism sector in the nearby Massai Mara game reserve and both he and Harun had excellent English.  Nixon was now retired and making his living from his small farm where he kept livestock and poultry and grew maize and beans.  The family also runs a tree nursery which supplies a range of tree seedlings including bee forage trees.  Haroun works with his father and is also a traditional Massai dancer and is a member of Buffalo Dance Group – a local Massai dance group.  Dance and songs are used as a means to community empowerment and to educate the community on issues.

Nixon told us that he learned his beekeeping traditionally until in 2009 when he attended Baraka Agricultural College in Molo where he took a one week course on beekeeping.  He told us that he learned a lot from that course.  After training at Baraka they decided to focus more on beekeeping and started removing bees from homes and putting them into beehives.

Nixon found that beekeeping can be profitable especially when there is a good harvest.  He said bees can be more profitable than an acre of maize.  This is because there are few inputs needed.  Beekeeping fits well with the family philosophy as they are also avid conservationists.  Bees need trees and trees need bees!  Nixon told us that beauty is also worthy in itself.  The beauty of the birds, bees, and trees adds value to their lives.  Nixon said that when he sees bees on flowers it makes him happy.

Harun points out some of the species of wild flowers in their garden

The environment

Care for the environment underpins everything that Nixon and Harun do.  They appreciate the pollination value of bees/how bees add value to the environment.  They started a nursery to propagate trees including indigenous trees and supply them to the local community.  Bees need pollen and nectar for forage but also they wanted to educate local people on the value of trees.  They explain to the people the simple but powerful message: “No Forest, No Honey”.  They also encourage people to become beekeepers.

Nixon and Harun talked of the bee forage trees in their local area.  The presence of rains and trees flowering indicate when honey will be available.  For example wild camphor is dominant and 2 weeks after flowering there is a very clear honey.  This shrub is very important for animal fodder during drought but is being lost due to land clearance for agriculture.   Other good bee plants to plant in the area are Keiapple, Grevillia Robusta and Eucalyptus.  There are also many small weeds on farms which are good for bees.  They were planning to plant passion fruits and to make sure that there was bee forage available throughout the year.  They noted that the local rain patterns are disturbed due to climate change which is a major challenge.

Nixon showed us around his tree nursery. We purchased some indigenous bee forage trees.
The Beekeeping Enterprise
  • Correct apiary siting is very important – the three most important elements are water, shade and food (bee forage).
  • Keeping the apiary clean and routine checking of beehives on a weekly basis is very important. When the rain starts there are many spider webs.   One spider which was mentioned was the king baboon spider.
  • Red ants are a problem in the dry season. Black ants are a problem too but not as much as the red ants.  Safari ants can be a problem as well.  The solution is to keep the apiary clean and put oil on the poles of the hive.  Wax moth is a terrible pest and destroys combs (especially in the Langstroth hive).
  • When opening the beehive combs and frames should be cleaned to make sure the correct bee space is maintained.
  • Stinging by bees is generally not a problem.  However one time they had an accident where the bees killed a donkey.  A worker tried to remove honey and the hive fell down. The donkey was tied next to the disturbed hive.  There is no problem unless the bees are handled badly.  Warning! Do not tether animals near bees.
  • They harvest honey from the Langstroth by cutting combs out of the frames.  There is a group extractor available locally however it’s too expensive to bring the extractor to their home as it is too big. A small plastic extractor which would fit on the back of a motorbike would be much better.  The reality is that it is useless to go for the extractor for a small number of combs so they just cut the combs from the frames.
Products/Services
  • Nixon and Harun supply honey to people who need raw honey for cultural practices. There is a local herbal beer made from pure honey.  Four kilogrammes of raw honey sells for 1,500Ksh (€13.8).
  • Nixon and Harun sell refined local honey at 1,000Ksh /litre (€9/litre) and despite the high price people still buy/there is high demand.
  • Nixon and Harun offer a service (for free) removing bees from houses and putting the bees into hives. They have removed bees from a house in Nakuru and also in Subukia and Kilgoris. They do however take the honey for their own use and the bee colony as well where possible so they are paid indirectly.
  • Nixon and Harun sell bee forage plants from their tree nursery.
  • In the future Nixon and Harun plan to monitor hives for people open hives and charge a fee. However people can be suspicious and think you are harvesting their honey.  Trust is important.
Challenges:
  • Pesticides are killing bees on farms because farmers are spraying wheat and maize. There is also minimum tillage which requires the use of sprays.  This is a big issue for bee health – bees are dying on the farms.
  • Siting the apiary is a big challenge due to theft. You need a padlock to secure the hive.  A week before our visit 3 hives were stolen.  Beeswax and a beesuit were also stolen.  Thieves can also be very destructive.  They use fire, take honey and throw everything on the ground.
  • Nixon was concerned about any possible link between mobile technology and beekeeping and felt that mobile phones may be interfering with bees the bees.
  • Rodents in hives was a challenge after absconding.
  • In 2011 hive beetles were common/a problem.
  • Environmental degradation and the loss of indigenous trees compounded by climate change is a great concern.
Group Beekeeping
  • Nixon is part of a local beekeeping group and he said that the problem is that everything stopped when the donors left.
  • 300 hives (Langstroths) were given in the area funded by a donor. The hives were made and supplied by a Kenyan company.
  • A one day training was given by the project on apiary siting, and how to handle the hive. The training was not practical as there were no bees!
  • In the Ololunga area there could be 1,000 hives and the management of most beekeepers is very poor. There is a lack of understanding of bees.  A lot of training is needed for the community. People don’t check their bees (management of bees is very poor). If you inspect the hive they think you are taking honey.  People also don’t understand their bees and take all the honey and leave none for the bees.
  • No follow-up was made by the project and no honey was harvested since (three years later).
  • The group apiary was poorly managed as there were too many hives crowded together. Most of the Langstroths seen had no supers and most were empty.  It was apparent that when they had been occupied the bees had absconded leaving behind wax moth and spiders.
  • It was clear from our inspection that the group hives were not cared for.  We were told that “after the donation was received nobody cares”.
  • Collective marketing was a problem – there was no interest and follow-up.
  • The group honey extractor which was also donated was too big and heavy to be moved between members’ homes and impractical for small amounts of honey. It was therefore gathering dust in the store.
The group hives were full of wax moth and ants and huddled together for shade and security.
The honey centrifuge (above) was unused. A smaller more portable centrifuge which could be transported on the back of a motorbike would have been more practical.
Key learning points
  • Families working together on bees (in this case a Father and Son) seem to be more successful.
  • Nixon and Harun are focussed on the interface between bees and the environment and the benefits of bees and trees to the community.
  • This is an example of a failed group project/hive dumping type of project where large numbers of Langstroths were distributed with little training or support which leads to nothing (a home for spiders perhaps!).  Trainee beekeepers need practical beekeeping training and sufficient support until they acquire the necessary skills.
Beekeeping Anecdotes: 

1. Bees & the Minister’s Boot

We were told a funny story about how a government minister came to the area and a swarm of bees entered into the boot of the ministers car while he as at a local meeting.  Nixon was called urgently to remove the bees from the boot of the car which he did.   Nixon said that afterwards it proved to be a very good colony!

2. Living in a bee house!

Nixon and Harun once removed bees from a house in Nakuru.  They took 15 colonies from one house!   It took them a week and they harvested 200 liters of honey.  The bees were very defensive and they had to stop and pray at times.  At one point the bees were stinging through double gloves!

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